Nobody is playing better football right now than the 49ers, last year's NFC champions and this year's No. 5 seed. Jim Harbaugh's team, which hasn't lost since mid-November, pulled out a last-second 23-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the NFC Wild Card round last Sunday.
Before its current seven-game winning streak, San Francisco lost back-to-back games against Carolina and New Orleans, respectively.
The underdog Panthers marched into Candlestick Park in Week 10 and outslugged the 49ers 10-9 to snap San Francisco's game winning streak and extend their own.
That crucial first signature win really marked the turning point for Ron Rivera's team, which finally became clutch and confident moving forward.
As hard as the Panthers fought to eek out that one-point victory, they will have to scratch, claw and grind even harder come Sunday.
They will be facing a 49ers team with its full complement of weapons back and healthy for the playoffs. In the first meeting, San Fran was without wideout Michael Crabtree and, for most of the game, tight end Vernon Davis — its two most dynamic playmakers in the passing game.
Not to mention, the 49ers felt they let that first game get away, a loss which proved to be the difference between the No. 1 and No. 5 seeds in the NFC Playoffs. Following their road win in Green Bay last week, Colin Kaepernick told reporters only three words regarding the upcoming rematch against the Panthers.
"We owe them."
The Panthers already beat the 49ers once this season — something only three other teams have done. But Cam Newton, Luke Keuchly and Co. are going to have to do the unthinkable — beat them twice — if they are to have a chance of representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
It's going to be an absolute dogfight.
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