The Carolina Panthers will square off with the San Francisco 49ers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday with a spot in the NFC Championship game on the line.
To get to the second Super Bowl in franchise history, the Panthers will have to unseat arguably the hottest team in the NFL. San Francisco topped the Green Bay Packers 23-20 at Lambeau Field in last weekend's wild-card round to notch its eighth straight victory. The 49ers also earned a chance to dish out some payback to a Carolina team that beat them 10-9 at Candlestick in November.
Relive the last two defensive plays of November's matchup — a sack and interception — that sealed the Panthers' victory at Candlestick:
It is important to note that the 49ers — who were already without star wideout Michael Crabtree — also lost All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis to a concussion in the half of the previous meeting between the two teams.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, Crabtree, who tallied eight receptions for 125 yards last week against Green Bay, appears to be completely healthy. With a full arsenal of weapons for Sunday's rematch, head coach Jim Harbaugh will look to take advantage of a relatively young and inexperienced Carolina secondary.
However, if the Panthers can consistently pressure Kaepernick, much like they did in the first game, the defense should be able to keep the 49ers from scoring more than 20 points.
But the biggest question for Panthers fans is undoubtedly the following: Can the Panthers offense muster up enough points to secure a win?
Carolina's Week 10 victory masked a dominating performance by the San Francisco defense. Cam Newton was limited to just a 52.7 passer rating — his lowest in a win as a pro. The team's offensive struggles, however, are largely due to a lack of playmakers at the receiver position.
Without veteran Steve Smith, the Panthers receivers combined for a pathetic 22 yards against a questionable Atlanta Falcons secondary. Brandon LaFell — Carolina's number one option in that game — didn't record a single catch.
Although Smith says he will play Sunday, it is still unclear how his ankle might affect him in the game. Maybe it is time to give Iowa product Marvin McNutt an opportunity on the big stage?
Regardless of Smith’s presence, the 49ers will likely stack the box, pressure Newton and force him to beat them with the limited weapons on offense. If the Panthers expect to win, somebody must step up in the passing game.
While I won't predict the final score, I like the Panthers' chances if they can win the turnover battle and top 120 yards of rushing offense.
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