Thursday, July 31, 2014

NFL divisional playoff preview: 49ers, Panthers feature pair of formidable defenses (6 items)

By Mitch Kunzler, For the Deseret News

Jan. 11, 2014

The third game of this week's playoff matchups will take place on Sunday, with the San Francisco 49ers facing off against the Carolina Panthers. Both teams feature third-year mobile quarterbacks and terrific defenses, which should make for one of the most compelling matchups of the entire playoffs.

To get a good idea of what type of action will take place Sunday, it is important to look at the type of season each team has had and things to watch for in the matchup.

You can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter at @MitchKunzler.

1 of 6. Game information

When: Sunday, Jan. 12, 11:05 a.m. MST

Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

TV coverage: FOX

2 of 6. The 49ers' journey

Following their loss to the Baltimore Ravens in last year's Super Bowl, the 49ers had a chip on their shoulder, and redeeming themselves by winning the Super Bowl this year is their ultimate goal.

All season, the Niners have done what they do best: run the football and play smash-mouth defense. San Francisco has gained a reputation for its physical play, and rightly so; its physicality normally winds up being the difference-maker in its games.

San Francisco has gained a reputation for its defense, which was ranked fifth in the league in total defense and fourth in run defense. Its elite defensive front gives opponents fits when trying to run the ball and protect the quarterback.

The 49ers haven't had any head-scratching losses this season, as each loss has come at the hands of a team that made the playoffs. They have been the model of consistency for the entire NFL while performing at an elite level. If San Francisco has one weakness, it is in its passing game. While quarterback Colin Kaepernick is one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the league, he took a ton of criticism this year following a couple of sub-par performances.

The 49ers ended the season on a six-game winning streak with a 12-4 record, which matched them up against the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the playoffs. Despite the extreme cold weather, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers having returned from injury, Kaepernick was able to make the necessary plays through the air (227 yards) and on the ground (98 yards) to lead the 49ers to the 23-20 win.

3 of 6. The Panthers' journey

After winning rookie of the year in 2011, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton seemed like he had a long, successful career ahead of him. But then last season, the Panthers went 7-9, and many questioned whether or not Newton had what it took to turn the Panthers into a playoff football team. This season, Newton silenced all doubters.

Newton led the Panthers as they impressed this year, including winning eight straight games at one point and 11 of their last 12. With DeAngelo Williams and Newton able to largely carry the rushing load, and solid wide receivers in Steve Smith and Ted Ginn, the balance of the Panthers' offense has been something special to watch this season.

But what has really propelled the Panthers to elite status is the play of their tenacious defense, a squad that ranked second in the NFL in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. The emergence of inside linebacker Luke Kuechly has had a positive effect on the identity of the Panthers' defense. Kuechly, who is a NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate, racked up 156 tackles this season, the fourth most in the league.

The combination of a balanced offense and rock-solid defense proved to be the recipe for success for the Panthers as they ended the season with a 12-4 record, which earns them the second seed in the NFC.

4 of 6. Previous matchup

The Panthers and 49ers matched up earlier this season in Week 10, a matchup that was extremely low-scoring. With two of the best defenses in the NFL going head to head, it was no surprise that the game was a battle that concentrated on defense.

In the end, it was the Panthers' ability to keep the 49ers out of the end zone that made the difference, as San Francisco scored three field goals but no touchdowns. The 49ers' Kaepernick was sacked six times and threw for a season-low 91 yards. The Panthers scored a touchdown and added a field goal, which was enough to give Carolina the 10-9 win.

Both Newton and Kaepernick finished with zero touchdowns and one interception each.

If the Panthers can put the same type of pressure on Kaepernick and hold the 49ers to field goals, they should be able to win in yet another defensive battle. But if Kaepernick can really make the defense pay with his legs as he did last week at Green Bay, it will be a long game for the Panthers.

5 of 6. What to watch for

The Panthers' win over the 49ers earlier this season was in San Francisco. This bodes well for Carolina, as it hasn't lost a home game since Week 1 and has won seven straight home games since. The Panthers play more comfortably at home, and Newton will certainly look to find the end zone more than he did in the previous matchup.

Although the Panthers have been extremely impressive this year, they aren't exactly as seasoned as the 49ers are. Their lack of playoff experience can't be ignored: this is the first postseason appearance for Carolina in five years.

The Panthers lead the NFL in sacks with 60. In the previous matchup with the 49ers, sacks proved to be a factor as the Carolina defense sacked Kaepernick six times. Look for the Panthers to amp up the pressure.

In recent years, the teams that have gotten hot at the right time have often gone on to win the Super Bowl. The 49ers are currently riding a seven-game winning streak, so they certainly fit that description.

Both Kaepernick and Newton are members of the 2011 NFL draft class, making the competition even more intense.