"We owe them."
The two teams are strikingly similar at first glance. They both feature young, dual-threat quarterbacks in Newton and Kaepernick, finished the season with 12-4 records, have strong rushing attacks and rely on top-tier, aggressive defenses to win games.
Despite their similarities, the Panthers are still seen as the underdogs. Which is surprising, given that they are coming into this game playing at home, on a week's rest with the aforementioned victory under their belt.
This line of thinking may be due to the perceived playoff readiness of the two teams involved.
The 49ers are the reigning NFC champions and just came off a thrilling 23-20 victory against the Green Bay Packers at wintry Lambeau Field. Newton, however, leads a team of mostly playoff newbies.
As David Newton of ESPN.com reports, just 12 Panthers offensive starters have playoff experience, compared to 20 for the 49ers.
Newton told Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer he is acutely aware the playoffs are like nothing he has experienced in football:
“It’s nothing like college at all. I have yet to experience a playoff game. I know the atmosphere is going to be hectic, to say the least,” Newton said. “It’s a lot more to play for, if you ask me. Not taking anything against college football, but the way this locker room is right now – full of guys that are hoping and ready to seize the moment …”
So how can Newton set the Panthers apart and send San Francisco packing? By extending drives, controlling the clock and coming up big when it counts.
The Panthers finished the season fourth in third-down conversion percentage, at 43.5 percent. Newton can extend these drives with his arm—he ranked 14th in the NFL on percentage of third-down passes resulting in first downs—but he is even better using his legs.
Newton led the league with 15 first downs on third-down scrambles, and runs like this magnificent one against the Patriots are hard to come by with NFL quarterbacks.
He may follow the Trent Dilfer handbook when it comes to managing games, but Dilfer couldn't even dream of making runs like that one.
The combination of Newton's game-changing athleticism and poise on third down can suffocate the 49ers by giving their offense very little time to compete against the Panthers' second-ranked defense.
Should the Panthers slip up and relinquish a late lead, Newton's penchant for late-game heroics could come into play. He finished the 2013 season with four fourth-quarter comebacks, tied for second best in the NFL.
Experience or no experience, it's dangerous to call any team featuring Cam Newton a true underdog.
Nathaniel Loop is a new contributor to Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @Nate_Loop.
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