49ers vs. Panthers: X-Factors That Will Dictate NFC Divisional Round Matchup

R. Cory SmithSenior Writer IJanuary 9, 2014

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 03:  Mike Tolbert #35 of the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on November 3, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When the San Francisco 49ers travel to take on the Carolina Panthers, revenge will be on their minds. After the Panthers pulled out a 10-9 victory in Week 10, the 49ers are looking to dash their dreams of advancing to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2005.

As entertaining as the Wild Card Round was, the NFL divisional round brings out the top teams in both conferences. And after a weekend where three of the four road teams pulled out victories, the top seeds could be in for a rude awakening in their first playoff games.

In each game this past weekend, players who weren't expected to make a huge dent in the playoffs, like Coby Fleener for the Indianapolis Colts or Mark Ingram for the New Orleans Saints, were the difference for their teams.

With the first meeting between the Panthers and 49ers coming down to just one point, the need for a player to break out will be of the utmost importance for both teams. Taking that into account, here are X-factors for both teams that will dictate who wins the NFC divisional round game.


Joe Staley, OL, San Francisco 49ers

Nov 25, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley (74) prepares to block Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo (98) during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

OK, maybe an offensive lineman doesn't exactly fit the mold of the typical X-factor, but he will need to be against Carolina if San Francisco plans on winning in Charlotte.

The guy he'll be going up against is a man by the name of Greg Hardy, or the Kraken from Hogwarts as he so famously called himself on Sunday Night Football:

Staley was able to hold Hardy without a sack in the last meeting, but he did finish with three tackles and a tackle for a six-yard loss. When asked about his main priority going into the matchup with the Panthers, Staley said stopping the Kraken was his main mission, according to Andrew Pentis of the 49ers' official website:

Hardy is big, athletic guy, real slippery. When it seems like he's getting blocked, he gets off blocks and makes plays [...] He's pretty unique.

He's a fiery guy. I got a sense of his personality. He's a little wild, which is fun. It's fun to go against a guy like that. It brings out the competitive side.

Staley has been a consistent lineman for the 49ers throughout his seven seasons with the team, but stopping Hardy could make for a memorable performance by the 29-year-old. Let's just hope Hardy doesn't dominate his breakfast again for Staley's sake.


Brandon LaFell, WR, Carolina Panthers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 10:  Brandon LaFell #11 of the Carolina Panthers catches the ball while covered by Tarell Brown #25 of the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on November 10, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty I
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Steve Smith is the No. 1 priority for every team in the Panthers' passing game, and deservedly so. But with Brandon LaFell lining up on the other side of the veteran, the threat for a big gain could come from either side of the line for Carolina.

The 6'2" receiver has put together a good season in his fourth year with the Panthers, tallying 49 receptions with over 627 yards and five touchdowns.

With Smith covered tightly in the first matchup between the two teams, LaFell found himself open for four receptions on eight targets, 48 yards and a long reception of 17 yards.

The former LSU receiver hasn't exactly broken out in any games this year, but deterring attention from Smith is exactly why he will need to be an important part of the Panthers' game plan against the 49ers.

While he likely won't finish with over 100 yards like he did against the Minnesota Vikings or have two touchdowns like he did against the New York Giants, LaFell will be targeted at least six to eight times and needs to come away with a good chunk of yards to give Smith room to work.


Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers

Dec 23, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Kendall Hunter (32) carries the ball in the final regular season game at Candlestick Park against the Atlanta Falcons. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the same reasons that Mike Tolbert is an X-factor for the Panthers, Hunter will need to help out for the 49ers to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

The third-year running back has carried the ball 78 times for San Francisco this season and totaled 358 yards on the ground with three touchdowns. While he hasn't been asked to do much this season for the 49ers, they will need all hands on deck against the No. 1 rushing defense in the playoffs.

Against the Panthers the first time around, Hunter finished as the third-leading rusher behind both Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick. With both expected to carry the brunt of the load once again, Hunter will need to make the most of his time on the field.

After posting two games with over 40 yards in Week 15 and 16, Hunter proved that he can help out against the Panthers. If the former Oklahoma State running back can provide a boost against a stout Carolina defense, the 49ers could be looking at another road win.


Mike Tolbert, FB, Carolina Panthers

Whether you call him the Bowling Ball, Toldozer or even the Tollbooth, Mike Tolbert has made a name for himself as one of the most physical running backs in the NFC this season.

The sixth-year fullback only has 101 carries this season, but he's made them count. With over 500 total yards on the year and seven touchdowns, Tolbert will need to be a factor for the Panthers against a team that has one of the best rushing defenses in the NFC.

According to Max Henson of the Panthers' official website, Tolbert is looking forward to the physical matchup:

In the first game the two teams played back in Week 10, Tolbert finished with just 23 total yards. But if the Panthers get in the red zone on Sunday, expect to see Tolbert try to run through tacklers to reach paydirt.

Just ask Eric Reid if he's looking forward to trying to tackle Tolbert again. It didn't work out so well the first time around.