(By Daisy Barringer)
Last week's win against Green Bay did not come easy. In fact, the stress of the peaks and valleys left most viewers physically exhausted. San Francisco fans should not expect a reprieve this Sunday; if anything, the showdown against the Carolina Panthers will prove more nerve-wracking than anything we saw against the Pack. Winner goes to the NFC Championship. Loser goes home. FOREVER.
The 49ers — as of this moment — are slight favorites, but I think everyone agrees that this is a crazy match-up. It's anybody's game to lose. Of course, I have to believe the 49ers are going to win because, otherwise, what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning? Here’s how they’ll do it:
The 49ers are on a roll. They have seven straight wins and an almost completely healthy team.
This is Carolina QB Cam Newton’s first-ever playoff experience. Sure, he has won big games before (2010 national championship game), but that’s not the NFL and it’s not the playoffs and Oregon is not the San Francisco 49ers. Not only that, but the Panthers haven’t even been to the playoffs since 2009, whereas the Niners well, we all remember what happened last year. *sad face*
You can’t turn your head without seeing a meme about this right now, but that’s because it’s a very important fact: In the 10-9 loss to the Panthers at home earlier this year? The 49ers were without Crabtree and although Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis played, neither saw much time on the field as it was Smith’s first game back post-rehab and Davis left the game with a concussion in the first half.
This 49ers offense is a different offense than the one the Panthers faced in November. With VD out of the game, Kaepernick basically had one target: Anquan Boldin. I expect to see Kap throw the ball deep down field on more than one occasion. If he can do so without turning the ball over, this will bode well for the Niners.
Panthers receiver Steve Smith is coming back from a knee injury and is definitely not at full speed yet. He admitted he’s having a hard time making cuts. I don’t root for injuries (okay, that’s a lie, but I only do that in really dark, desperate moments), but I’m not going to say I’m not a little happy that Steve Smith isn’t 100 percent. He’ll play, yes; but he won’t play as well as he usually does. (I hope.)
Phil Dawson. No one likes a field goal unless it’s the game-winning field goal, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to see at least one or two on Sunday. For whatever reason, the 49ers play calling sucks in the red zone, which inevitably ends up with Dawson running onto the field. Luckily, the guy is great at his job. In a game that could very well come down to a field goal, I’m glad he’s on our side.
The Panthers are well rested. While the 49ers played in the freezing cold last Sunday, the Panthers sat in their La-Z Boy recliners eating pizza and chicken wings, and getting the remote control all dirty with their greasy fingers.
Carolina has the second ranked defense in the NFL. In fact, that defense effectively broke down the 49ers offensive line in the November game and managed to keep the 49ers scoreless in the second half, securing the win.
It’s not looking like CB Carlos Rogers is going to play on Sunday. Fangio said if he didn’t practice he wouldn’t play. And he hasn’t practiced. That being said, I thought Perrish Cox did a good job against Green Bay and now he’s had even more time to practice and get back into the swing of things.
Carolina DE Greg Hardy gets a lot of sacks. He’s had seven sacks in their past two games alone. He’s also incredibly annoying in that all he talks about is getting paid, but unfortunately for the 49ers, he gets paid because he’s good at what he does. He threatened Kap with “a bad day” when speaking to the media this week. Of course he also said he doesn’t “really know what this playoff stuff is about,” so I’ll leave it there.
Clock management. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: One of these days, the 49ers horrible clock management is going to cost them a game. Burned timeouts, delays of game—the 49ers struggle to get the plays in and they suffer for it.
When Gore gets 100+ yards, the 49ers almost always win. Unfortunately, the Panthers have the No. 2-rated run defense. The run game is crucial for a bazillion reasons, including time of possession. The 49ers cannot let the Panthers shut it down.
Likewise, when the 49ers give up 100+ rushing yards, they tend to lose. Carolina averaged 126.6 rushing yards per game in the regular season. The 49ers need to have a plan for this. I don’t know what it is, but there’d better be one.
The Rest of It
We will know going into the game on Sunday who the winner will face in the NFC Championship game. If the Seahawks win on Saturday, either the Panthers or the Niners will be flying to Seattle. If the Saints win, they’ll be flying to either Carolina or SF. It will be close to impossible for New Orleans to beat Seattle in Seattle, but it’s football. You never know what’s going to happen. Go Saints.
Harbaugh had pro wrestling legend Ric Flair give a motivational speech to the team last week. This caused quite a stir in Carolina where he was buddies with the Panthers players and fans adopted his signature “Whoooo!” Flair told the Niners players that “Ric Flair’s heart is with the 49ers all the way to the end” and to be honest, I’d be super pissed if someone turned on me like that, but probably not pissed enough to send death threats, which Ric Flair has been receiving all week. Needless to say, he will not attend the game. Instead, he’ll root for the Niners from the safety of his living room.
As always, it’s hard to break everything down in one column, but long story longer: The 49ers are capable of winning this game. Sadly, so are the Panthers. Expect a defensive struggle throughout and only a few incredibly meaningful scores. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ended 13-10. Niners, obvi.
Watch San Francisco at Carolina on Sunday at 10:05 a.m. PST on FOX.