(CBS Local) — The San Francisco 49ers are one of just two remaining unbeaten teams in the National Football League, sharing the honor with the defending champion New England Patriots through seven weeks of the season.
Heading into their Week 8 matchup with the Carolina Panthers, things begin to get a little bit more difficult for the Niners. Aside from two games against the Cardinals, San Fran sees matchups with the Panthers, Seahawks (twice), Packers, Ravens, Saints and Rams in their final 10 games of the year. Those teams are currently a combined 30-11 so far this season. It all starts with this Sunday, when Kyle Shanahan and company welcome Ron Rivera and the 4-2 Panthers to Levi’s Stadium.
Carolina brings with it a potential MVP candidate in running back Christian McCaffrey, who ranks third in the league in rushing (618 yards) and in the top 25 in receptions with 35. McCaffrey has been heavily leaned on due to the absence of star quarterback Cam Newton, who has been out since Week 3 due to a foot injury. Backup quarterback Kyle Allen has played well in relief of Newton, but he faces a tough task, going up against what KPIX sports anchor Dennis O’Donnell calls “the best defensive line in the NFL.”
“You have to worry about so many players — Nick Bosa, the top draft pick, Dee Ford, the free agent who came in as a pass rusher. Then you’ve got DeForest Buckner, 12 sacks a year ago,” said O’Donnell. “And now the emergence finally of the Oregon kid Arik Armstead and the Stanford man Solomon Thomas. Collectively, as a group, that is the best D-line in football.”
The stats back him up, with the Niners defensive line ranking at the top of Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate metric, pulling down opposing QBs or forcing them into intentional grounding penalties on 11.5% of dropbacks. The Panthers offensive line has been about league average this year, allowing 16 sacks (17th) and 29 quarterback hits (ninth) in their six games.
The defense has been the strong suit of this team, though there have been some cracks showing in the running game, with the team giving up over 100 yards rushing in three straight games. Against a strong rushing attack led by McCaffrey, that could bite them. But, O’Donnell believes that the defense will be able to get it done.
“We’ve seen the last two games, in which the strategy against the 49ers is run it up the gut. Run the football, so you can minimize the pass rush,” said O’Donnell. “Christian McCaffrey will play a huge role, if the Panthers have a chance to win this game, but I’m sticking with San Francisco. Defense wins championships, and the 49ers, I think, have the best defense in the NFL.”
The 49ers host the Panthers on Sunday with kickoff slated for 1:05 p.m. Pacific Time.