Behind quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers have gone from worst to first in the NFC South in just three years, and they show no sign of slowing down at home against the fifth-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs.
Of the three NFC quarterbacks selected to the 2014 NFL Pro Bowl, Newton is without a doubt the most dynamic. Not faring well against the trio in the regular season, posting a 1-3 record against Russell Wilson's Seattle Seahawks, Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints and Newton's Panthers, the 49ers' only hope is that the bye-week layoff will have made the Panthers rusty.
Though barely edging out an impressive 10-9 road victory against San Francisco in the regular season, Carolina has on its side the improved play of its core group of weapons, a 7-1 home record and a clean bill of health.
For the 49ers, injuries could prove to be a problem, as No. 1 cornerback Carlos Rogers and starting defensive tackle Justin Smith did not participate in Wednesday's practice—as per 49ers.com.
For the Panthers, things have gone swimmingly since last defeating the 49ers. Posting a 7-1 record for the season's second half, Carolina hasn't lost since Week 14 and has mastered a difficult regular-season schedule.
3 of the final 4 quarterbacks standing in the NFC are dual-threat passers who like to run: Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) January 6, 2014
As the NFL's rushing leader for quarterbacks with 585 yards and six touchdowns, Newton presents a unique threat to a defense that must alter its game plan to contain the dual-threat quarterback.
If San Francisco is conservative defensively to hold Newton in the pocket, it will open up opportunities for Carolina's leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams, who broke the Week 10 matchup's longest run and recorded its lone touchdown—this 27-yard counter up the sideline, per fansided.com.
Injuries in the linebacking corps to both NaVorro Bowman and outside linebacker Dan Skuta may present superb opportunities for one of Newton's favorite targets, tight end Greg Olsen.
In the regular season, Olsen led the team in every major statistical category for receiving, with 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns. Additionally, since posting one of his worst performances of the season in his first crack at the 49ers defense, he's caught four or more balls in every game since.
Additionally, the injury to Rogers in the secondary will prove advantageous for Steve Smith in his return. The long-time veteran receiver caught a season-high six passes for 63 yards in San Francisco earlier this season.
Newton's leadership and ability to manage a game, both with his legs and in the passing game, resulted in the leading of four game-winning drives in the 2013 regular season—perhaps the most impressive of which was in the winning effort against the AFC East champion New England Patriots in which Newton found Ted Ginn Jr. for the go-ahead touchdown in the closing minutes.
Carolina has all of the tools to win this game, starting with Cam Newton.
Prediction: Carolina Panthers 21 San Francisco 49ers 14
Unless otherwise mentioned, all stats were gathered via Pro-Football-Reference.com.