49ers Divisional Round primer: Payback against the Panthers?

The San Francisco 49ers will attempt to advance to their third straight NFC Championship game when they travel to Carolina to face the Panthers. The Niners are coming off a thrilling last-second win against the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card round and will be looking to continue their momentum. Carolina will be playing after a two week layoff because of the bye that they earned and will hope to avoid a slow start due to time off. Will the green Panthers be able to hold off an experienced San Francisco playoff squad?

Recent History

In Week 10 of 2013, the 49ers played one of their worst offensive games since Colin Kaepernick took over, losing to the Panthers 10-9. The Carolina defense dominated San Francisco, holding them to 151 total yards. Kaepernick threw for a career low 91 yards and was sacked six times. The 49ers were able to get some production on the ground, tallying 24 carries and 105 yards but were unable to find the endzone. Carolina’s offense did not do much better as they were held to 250 total yards and Cam Newton was sacked three times. Both defenses forced two turnovers during the course of the game.

Players to watch

A healthy Michael Crabtree made his impact felt against the Packers.

Crabtree was targeted 13 times during the Wild Card game and hauled in eight passes for 125 yards. It was the third time in his last four playoff games that the receiver has eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Most importantly, seven of his eight catches on the day went for first downs and three of the receptions moved the chains on third or fourth down. His presence will also continue to create opportunities for his teammates and make life easier on his quarterback.

For the Panthers, they will need to make some plays in the passing game and star wide receiver Steve Smith is battling a knee injury. Without him in Week 17, Panthers receivers only managed four receptions for 22 yards. If he is unable to go or is limited, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. would have to pick up the slack. Carolina also relies heavily on tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the teams with 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns. 

Game-changing factor

Kaepernick has been a different quarterback in the playoffs than he was in the regular season. The main reason for that is the way that San Francisco utilizes him in the postseason. In 23 regular season starts, Kaepernick is averaging 5.8 carries and 33 yards rushing per game. He has scored six rushing touchdowns. In four playoff games, Kaepernick is averaging eight carries and 90 yards rushing per game with three touchdowns. This more wide-open approach appears to translate better to Kaepernick’s style of play.  He is also averaging 44 more yards a game passing (256) in the playoffs than he does in the regular season (208). Considering Kaepernick’s playoff track record, along with a healthy Crabtree and Vernon Davis (Davis suffered a concussion early in the first matchup and did not return), the 49ers offense is much more explosive this time around.

Stats to know

The game will feature two of the best defenses in the NFL and the numbers show just how close the two units are to each other production-wise. Carolina and San Francisco rank second and third respectively in the league in total defense. The Panthers only allowed  242 points (15.1 per game) and were one of the best teams in the league against the run. Opposing teams ran for 1,391 yards (second) and scored only four rushing touchdowns (tied for first). They also have the best pass rush and led all defenses with 60 sacks which is 22 more than the 49ers had.

While they did not get the sacks the Panthers did, the 49ers were third in the league with 272 points allowed (17 per game). They were fourth in rushing yards allowed with 1,535 and forced 30 turnovers (Carolina also had 30). Both teams were practically identical against the pass in 2013, with the 49ers allowing 3536 (seventh) yards to the Panthers’ 3,429 (sixth). The 49ers pass defense allowed a 19 touchdown passes and intercepted 18 passes while Carolina let up 17 touchdown passes and picked off 20 balls.

Bottom line

While the impact of both defenses will be felt throughout this game, the 49ers have a different offense than the one the Panthers saw in the Week 10. With Kaepernick being a dual threat and a healthy Crabtree to pair with Anquan Boldin, Davis, and Frank Gore, San Francisco should be able to put up enough points to edge the Panthers.

Photo: Getty Images

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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a contributor to 49erswebzone.com and Ninerfans.com. He's been a guest on numerous podcasts and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY.


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