Luke Kuechly leads a talented defense that could give Colin Kaepernick fits in the Divisional Round clash.
You'd think that winning 11 of their last 12 games would earn the Carolina Panthers some more respect.
You'd think that beating the likes of Drew Brees and Tom Brady would give the Panthers the kind of national notoriety the No. 2 seed in a loaded NFC would command.
You'd think that beating the 49ers in San Francisco would at least make Carolina the nominal favorite for Sunday's divisional round playoff clash in Charlotte.
You'd be wrong.
Opening up as a pick 'em, the line for the game didn't take long to swing to San Francisco's favor, which now sits as a two-point favorite in Carolina.
This is Vegas' way of saying that, should the game be played in Candlestick Park, San Francisco would be favored by eight points.
And though it's still early, the pundits are backing San Francisco's case overwhelmingly. To abstain from name-dropping, just take a little jaunt around any major sports media site for a while to get a sample of the consensus the national media and talking heads have already come to. There's even this article that declares the 49ers to be the best team in the NFL.
A team that, lest I remind you, Carolina beat in its home park earlier this season.
"We owe them," 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said of the Panthers following San Francisco's narrow victory over the Packers, a team that held 49ers running back Frank Gore to 3.3 yards per carry in the Wild Card matchup.
Granted, Kaepernick was able to burn the Packers for 98 yards over seven carries, but Carolina's second-ranked run defense (at 86.9 yards per game) is unlikely to allow that to happen. Why is that?
Well, the Panthers play zone, as opposed to the man-to-man that the Packers employed against San Francisco in the Wild Card Round. With lots of eyes always watching Kaepernick, (called unstoppable by one ESPN writer), the quarterback is less likely to break off for big runs.
But more than their zone defense, the Panthers' front seven will keep Kaepernick bottled up. In their meeting at Candlestick, the Panthers sacked Kaepernick six times. Even crazier is the fact that not a single one of these came from the player Panthers fans call "Kraken," Greg Hardy, who amassed 15 sacks this year including 10 after the 49ers game and seven in his final two games.
Add to that a healthy Charles Johnson who totaled 11 sacks even after missing three games, and Kaepernick will be sure to feel the heat coming right off the snap.
What makes the Panthers' defense truly elite are the linebackers, most notably Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly—a tandem that totaled 279 tackles, six sacks, six interceptions, 15 passes deflected, and one forced fumble. Their incredible speed, awareness and football intelligence can make the "unstoppable" Kaepernick merely human—and did, holding him to 107 total yards in their meeting earlier this season.
Maybe. But the last time I checked, Cam Newton didn't exactly set the world on fire in San Francisco; he totaled only 184 yards and failed to put the ball into the end zone either on the ground or through the air. If Kaepernick is expected to play better the second time around (and he likely will play a lot better), then so should Newton, who has experienced much growth as both a quarterback and a leader in his third year in the league.
A lot of respect the 49ers are getting comes from their experience, having made the Super Bowl last year and the NFC Championship Game the year before that. To be fair, this experience is invaluable, and San Francisco certainly benefits from having been here before.
Carolina's experience is underestimated. Although the Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since Jake Delhomme's six-turnover NFC Divisional Round game in the 2008 playoffs, Carolina has some experience on the roster.
On the defensive side of the ball, safety Quintin Mikell spent most of his career with talented Philadelphia teams that advanced deep into the playoffs. Same goes with cornerback Drayton Florence and San Diego. Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards has playoff experience with the Ravens.
Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson were both key cogs on the last Panthers team to make the playoffs.
Offensively, Mike Tolbert has playoff experience with San Diego. Much of the offensive line has stuck together for years—dating to Carolina's last playoff appearance. You know about DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and you certainly know about Steve Smith.
And let's not forget Cam Newton, who knows a thing or two about playoff football, having won the big game while at Auburn.
What do the Panthers think of all this?
Well, here's what Carolina coach Ron Rivera had to say on the matter,
"Being the underdog I guess takes pressure off (us) and puts pressure on them. Now they have expectations for them. But we're at home. We're going to come out, show up and do the best we can.
"It's a big week. We know it is. We're going to show up on Sunday, and we're going to play. It'll be a lot of fun.''
So go ahead and talk about the 49ers. Talk about the incredible defense led by Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Justin and Aldon Smith. Talk about the offensive playmakers Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis. And please, keep talking about the "unstoppable" Colin Kaepernick.
The Panthers don't care.
And quite frankly, they invite you to.