It was a meaningful affair for this matchup, too—reverse the result of Carolina’s 10-9 victory, and San Francisco and New Orleans would have won their respective divisions. Instead, San Francisco has to travel on the road to face a rested Carolina, a week after surviving the sub-zero temperatures on the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field.
To earn a victory over Carolina this time around, the 49ers will have to clean up some sloppy performances from the first meeting and capitalize on what made them successful early in that Week 10 contest.
It was a bad day for the San Francisco aerial game last time these two teams faced off. Colin Kaepernick was held to 11 completions for only 91 yards and an interception. The leading receiver was Mario Manningham, who had two dropped passes and was the target on the interception.
That’s not a particularly good day.
It gets worse—of the 11 completions, only three were for first downs, and only one of those was an actual throw beyond the sticks, instead of a dump-off and scamper by a running back.
Captain Munnerlyn spent most of the day guarding Manningham, and while he allowed three receptions, they ended up only going for 5.3 yards per target—a paltry number. Nickel corner Drayton Florence and linebacker Luke Kuechly also scored highly in Pro Football Focus’ postgame grades (subscription required).
It all added up to, by far, the worst day for the 49ers offense this season in terms of yardage—when you include sack yards in the equation, the team only managed 46 yards on pass plays. That’s the worst figure for any team this year in any game—a full 30 yards worse than Washington’s show against San Francisco in Week 12.
The last time the 49ers had a performance that bad in the passing game, Cody Pickett was the quarterback in 25 mph winds.
Of course, the passing game wasn’t playing with a full deck. Vernon Davis only played 21 snaps, exiting with a concussion. At that point, the 49ers were up 6-0 and would kick their third field goal on that drive. Just counting plays before Davis left, Kaepernick was 6-of-10 for 43 yards. That’s still not lighting up the world, but it’s far more solid against a tough defense than his eventual final line, put together in less than one half of play. He finished 5-of-12 for 48 yards and an interception—Davis' loss crippled the pass attack.
They were also without Michael Crabtree, who was still three weeks from making his 2013 debut. He is averaging 15.1 yards per reception this season, catching at least a couple of balls in every game he’s played in. In the Wild Card Round, he gave his biggest contribution of the year, catching eight passes for 125 yards, including a couple of first downs.
He hasn’t been the same weapon he was last season, as he is still recovering from the Achilles injury. But the difference in the pass game has been huge, with the team averaging more than 40 yards more through the air with him in the lineup.
The Carolina game, at the moment, represents Kaepernick’s last horrible game this season—his splits have notably improved.
He’s taking better care of the ball, finding his receivers more often and hitting them further downfield when he throws. He’s not going to challenge Peyton Manning for any passing titles this season, but he doesn’t have to in order to win this game—the 49ers lost by one point in Week 10 despite the worst passing performance in the NFL this season.
With nearly a full complement of weapons, you won’t see numbers as poor as Week 10 again, and that alone could help them put this one away.
Newton Under Pressure
The fact that the 49ers came so close to winning despite the anemic air performance says a lot about the standards to which the defense played in that first matchup. They not only brought Cam Newton down three times in the backfield but hit him twice more and forced him to hurry throwing the ball 20 times.
The added pressure doesn’t mean Newton was running wild on them, either—he was held to only 15 yards rushing on eight attempts. Kaepernick may have been setting new records for futility on the 49ers side of the ball, but Newton wasn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard either. He finished the day 16-of-32 for 169 yards and an interception.
Most of this was done without Aldon Smith, who was still working his way back into the lineup after rehab. He only participated on 12 snaps in the Carolina game, notching one hurry and not much else. Instead, Ahmad Brooks, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Dan Skuta applied the majority of the pressure on the day.
The right side of Carolina’s line struggled in particular—all three sacks were credited against either Nate Chandler or Greg Olsen on the right, and more than half of the hurries came from that direction as well. Now, add in a fully recovered Smith attacking the other side of the line, and you have the recipe for another busy day for Newton, who will have to scramble to find somewhere to throw the ball.
When Newton did have time downfield, he found some room to work, but there have been changes in the San Francisco backfield since then, too.
Most prominent has been the rise of Tramaine Brock, who only played in 23 snaps in Week 10. They were solid snaps, as he allowed only an eight-yard completion to Steve Smith while picking Newton off after a rushed throw, which was caused by pressure. That was the last game where Brock played less than half of the team’s snaps, as he has burst onto the scene in the second half of this season.
More Brock is a good thing for the secondary.
They were also missing rookie safety Eric Reid, who went down in the third quarter with a concussion. His replacement Craig Dahl performed adequately in relief, but Reid’s contributions as a rookie have been tremendous. It was certainly easier for the Panthers to a mount a comeback without him in the lineup.
This time around, both Brock and Reid will likely play the full game, barring injury. That makes the question mark in the secondary Carlos Rogers, who is still not practicing as he recovers from a hamstring injury suffered in Week 17. Brock and Tarell Brown performed well against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last week, and even with Steve Smith returning, the Panthers don't boast as many weapons as Green Bay's offense, so Rogers may not be needed.
In fact, Rogers has the lowest pass-coverage grade on the 49ers. Brock and Brown as the starters, then, perhaps represent an improvement over what the 49ers put out there in Week 10. Combined with the pass rush they brought in the first matchup, the 49ers have the capability to shut down the Panthers' passing attack.
The two teams battled to roughly a draw in the rushing attack in the first matchup—Frank Gore rushed for 82 yards, while DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 87 for Carolina. While the pass-rushers pushed into the backfield and hampered both quarterbacks, run blocking went quite well.
Gore had the most success when he went left behind Pro Bowlers Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
The Panthers, on the other hand, plowed their way through the middle of the line, especially behind Travelle Wharton. Their touchdown came on such a run. Williams had a huge hole open up in the center of the line, which allowed him to burst to full speed and juke his way through the secondary for the score.
No matter how they did it, both teams were equally effective on the ground in Week 10, which is odd. Carolina has the sixth-ranked run defense, according to Football Outsiders, while the 49ers are closer to the middle of the pack. The Panthers give up an average of 87 yards per game on the ground, while the 49ers give up about 10 more—it’s not a huge advantage, but it is statistically significant.
If the 49ers are able to match Carolina again on the ground, despite what the numbers say, they’ll have every chance to win this one. It’s easy to say that and much harder to do—Kuechly has a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year, and Greg Hardy is a deserving Pro Bowler as well.
The 49ers were able to duel them to a statistical draw in the first game; when you add in the probable improvement in the passing attack in this one, another draw on the ground could see the 49ers to victory.
According to Bovada, the 49ers are three-point favorites going into the matchup, which seems a little high. The Panthers have both the benefit of playing at home and coming off a bye, and, in the divisional round of the playoffs, that has historically meant a lot. The home team in this round wins roughly 74 percent of the games—typically, it is a better team, at home and rested, which are three significant advantages.
The Panthers have at least two of those. They might not be a notably better team, but the bye week and location would be enough for me to pick them heads up. However, the 49ers do have clear areas where even a small improvement could have seen great results in Week 10.
A victory, and a trip to their third consecutive NFC Championship, could be in the cards.