5 Things to Know for 49ers vs. Panthers Divisional Round Showdown
Led by great defenses, sound running games and dual-threat quarterbacks, these two 12-win teams have a legitimate chance at winning the Super Bowl this year.
But only one can advance on Sunday.
What will make the difference? Keep an eye on the following trends and storylines to get a better idea of what to expect.
Colin Kaepernick's Underappreciated YPA
If you listened to his detractors, you'd be led to believe Colin Kaepernick had a dreadful regular season.
You would be wrong to believe that.
Kaepernick finished the season eighth in passing yards per attempt among qualified quarterbacks. His 7.69 YPA was better than Cam Newton's (7.14) and Tom Brady's (6.92).
I've heard analysts talk about Cam Newton as an MVP candidate, yet his passing statistics are worse than Kaepernick's in several categories. Before we start a debate on who's the better player, I'll just say that Kaepernick's passing ability is underappreciated by many media outlets.
That being said, San Francisco's signal-caller was particularly bad against the Panthers in Week 10.
He posted his worst total QBR of his career, according to John McTigue of ESPN.com. It was also his worst yards-per-attempt average.
The 49ers are 13-0 (playoffs included) this season when Kaepernick tops 6.0 in yards per attempt. They're 0-4 when he doesn't.
Both Defenses on Fire
The following is a blind defense resume test.
Defense A has allowed more than 20 points once in its last 12 games. Defense B hasn't allowed more than 24 in its last 14 games.
Which is better, you ask? I'll take either.
Defense A, also known as the Panthers defense, finished second in scoring defense, sixth in pass defense and second in rush defense.
The 49ers finished third in scoring defense, seventh in passing defense and fourth in rushing defense.
Where Carolina has an advantage is with its pass rush. The Panthers led the league with 60 sacks, whereas the 49ers finished 18th with 38.
Expect this game to be the lowest scoring one of the weekend.
49ers' Mediocrity When Allowing 100-Plus Rushing Yards
Over the last two seasons, the formula to defeating the 49ers has included running the football effectively. Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted out the stat to prove it prior to the 49ers' Wild Card Round win:
"Since 2012, 49ers are 18-2 when allowing fewer than 100 rushing yards. They are 5-6-1 when allowing 100-plus."
The Panthers rushed for 109 yards on 31 carries against the 49ers earlier this year. Not surprisingly, they won the game.
Carolina averaged 126.6 rushing yards per game, and it topped 100 yards in 11 of its last 12 games. Playoffs included, the 49ers have held four of their last five opponents to under 100 yards.
Something's gotta give in this strength-on-strength matchup.
The Greg Hardy Factor
As mentioned previously, the Panthers had 60 sacks in the regular season. Greg Hardy was a big reason why.
The 6'4", 290-pound defensive end totaled 15 sacks in 2013. He also had seven in the team's final two games.
The Panthers are 8-0 when Hardy records at least one sack.
When the 49ers and Panthers played back in Week 10, Hardy was shut out, but the Panthers still had six sacks. If he gets in on the fun on Sunday, it could be a long day for the 49ers.
The Michael Crabtree Factor
When Michael Crabtree returned to the lineup in Week 13, the 49ers offense went from average to great.
As Bleacher Report's Tyson Langland discovered, the 49ers are averaging 53 more yards per game since Crabtree's return. More importantly, the 49ers are 6-0 and averaging 25.8 points per game with him in the lineup.
Not coincidentally, Kaepernick's play has been far better with Crabtree active. According to ESPN's John McTigue, Kaepernick's YPA is 8.6 when Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin are all on the field at once.
Clearly, Crabtree will be a matchup problem for the Panthers. However, will Kaepernick have enough time to find him? And will Crabtree find the soft spots in Carolina's zone-heavy defensive scheme?
If so, the 49ers offense could continue its recent run of excellence.