The San Francisco 49ers edged the Green Bay Packers on Sunday by the skin of their teeth, but they'll have no time to rest; they travel to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs on Sunday at 1:05 ET.
At first glance, it might appear as though the Panthers have the advantage. They edged out the 49ers at Candlestick in Week 10, 10-9, and now they'll be playing at home.
However, despite first glance, the 49ers actually hold the edge this time around. Most importantly, they have their offensive weapons back for this game. In the earlier matchup, the Niners were without wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis; their importance to the 49ers offense cannot be understated.
So, while the 49ers ranked 30th in the NFL in passing yards, it would be a mistake to judge the prowess of their passing game on that statistic, because for much of the season, Colin Kaepernick lacked the offensive weapons that he now has.
In contrast, the Panthers' passing struggles (29th in passing yards) are legitimate. Their top receiver in the regular season was Greg Olsen, their tight end, with only 816 yards. Additionally, the Panthers' best wide receiver, Steve Smith, might not be at full strength during the game.
Steve Smith says feeling stronger. Says there's a 60 percent chance he plays Sunday.— Joe Person (@josephperson) January 6, 2014
Furthermore, quarterback Cam Newton was plagued by inconsistency for much of the season, failing to reach a passer rating of 90 in nine of his 16 games.
Kaepernick, with four playoff starts, also has significantly more playoff experience than Newton, who will be making his first playoff start on Sunday. ESPN's Herm Edwards thinks that because the Niners are more battle-tested, that's enough to give them the edge on Sunday.
But Kaepernick isn't the only Niner with playoff experience. Most of the 49ers team returns from their Super Bowl run last year, and they've already gotten their feet wet this year in Green Bay. A couple of the returnees include Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the most formidable combination of NFL inside linebackers in recent memory.
As SBNation noted following the Niners' victory over the Falcons in Week 16, which came thanks to a Bowman pick-six to seal the win, the two linebackers are the greatest in the NFL right now.
While the Panthers' Luke Kuechly is arguably the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, he doesn't have a sidekick that allows Carolina's linebackers to even compare to the prowess of the 49ers' linebackers.
Finally, the Niners have some motivation to win this game.
After their sloppy loss during the regular season, you can be sure they'll avoid their previous mistakes and come out firing in the playoffs.