The last time these two clubs met was during Week 10 in what turned out to be a defensive struggle at Candlestick Park. The Panthers have been dealing with an assortment of injuries (notably Steve Smith's knee sprain) while the Niners have seemingly improved (returns of Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree) since they last saw Carolina.
Many media outlets have been favoring San Francisco to not only beat Carolina this weekend, but also to possibly win the Super Bowl.
Granted, they played well against a Green Bay team that tends to succeed in cold weather, edging the Packers 23-20 on a late Phil Dawson field goal. Meanwhile, the Panthers have been labeled the underdog for the fourth time in five playoff appearances.
Carolina has had issues coming out of a bye week under the Ron Rivera era. In three seasons as head coach, Rivera has dropped all three games coming out of the bye week. Additionally, many Panthers fans will point to the divisional playoff game against Arizona following a bye week in 2008 that saw Carolina get embarrassed on their home field.
Understandably, the home crowd hopes to avoid a repeat of history.
It seems likely that both sides know this will not be an easy game. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be playing with a chip on his shoulder as he will be seeking to avenge his poor showing against Carolina earlier this year.
Having a healthy Crabtree and Vernon Davis should help him in that regard.
During the first meeting, Crabtree was still unavailable due to injury and Davis had left early because of a concussion. The Panthers defense will have their hands full trying to compensate for San Francisco's additions.
While Kaepernick will have the luxury of an improved offense, his counterpart will have to make the most of what the Niners defense gives him and get help from his offense.
Cam Newton hasn't been very impressive as of late and despite being clutch late in games against New Orleans and Atlanta, he has benefited from a stout Carolina defense. The latter will be the key to a Panthers' victory if the offense isn't very effective.
If Newton is to succeed and earn his first playoff victory, the running game will need to be productive and his receivers will need to make big plays.
Given the fact, Steve Smith will not be 100 percent. So expect to see Domenik Hixon involved in more plays than usual. Another player to watch is Ted Ginn, Jr. who would love nothing more than to return a punt or kick for a touchdown. He should be involved in the offense for much of the day as well.
San Francisco has a proven defensive unit as well, and features a linebacker unit that rivals Carolina. Aldon Smith's presence in most of the Niners' defensive series will be welcomed as he was limited in Week 10. Debate has ignited over which team has the better set of linebackers and when it comes down to it, the tandem who does the most to help their team win should be worthy of the title.
The Panthers led the league in sacks with 60.0 over the season; a number that was reached with the aid of Greg Hardy's monster day in Atlanta in Week 17. Kaepernick was brought down six times by the Carolina defense and their offensive line will have to knuckle down to protect against a blitz that seems to come from anywhere.
Likewise, Newton needs to be on his toes (literally) and avoid the San Francisco pass rush.He was taken down three times in Week 10 and was limited to 15 yards rushing.
One thing the Panthers need from their young quarterback is for him to make plays like he has all year – with both his legs and arm.
The one thing that will benefit the Panthers on Sunday will be the enthusiasm and loudness of their fans. Carolina's resurgence this year has sparked renewed interest in the team and has brought about a boisterous crowd to key games. The season finale against New Orleans is a prime example.
Since this week's divisional playoff game will be the first one in Charlotte since 2008, the crowd noise should be louder than that of Green Bay.
Considering the short time it took to sell out tickets for the game (three minutes), the Carolina fans should be a rowdy bunch that will do all it can to upset the tempo of the Niners offense.
Who wins and moves on to the NFC Championship Game?
Ultimately, it will come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes and capitalizes on turnovers and visits to the red zone.
The inexperience of Newton will be the driving force behind most arguments against him, but he has the presence of quality veterans who have been at this stage before.
Kaepernick, despite a down season from last year, has nothing to prove as he looks to get his team back to the Super Bowl. However, his response to an aggressive Carolina defense will factor heavily into how well his offense can move the ball.
They may no longer be rivals in the traditional sense, but there is reason to believe these two teams will be seeing a lot of each other in the future. Sunday's game will be one such matchup that will have a lot riding on the line.
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