Sunday's divisional playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers (12-4) and the Carolina Panthers (12-4) is almost here. We have heard the experts discuss which team had the upper hand going into the contest and fans everywhere have talked about the game at length. However, what has been missing is a forum where two fans (each representing one team) could discuss the game from their point of view. With that in mind, I reached out to television personality and fitness model Roni Taylor.
Ms. Taylor is the most-followed female Vegas personality and a huge fan of San Francisco. She took time out of her busy schedule to discuss this weekend's game between her beloved 49ers and my Carolina Panthers. You may be familiar with her YouTube series Tweets & Answers where sports fans can submit questions via Twitter, and she will select a few to answer for that week's program.
We discussed 10 different points as they related to the game.
CE: What do you think will be the keys of the game for San Francisco?
RT: I’ve got two words for you: Michael Crabtree. He missed playing in these two teams’ last meeting due to recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, but he proved his value to the 49ers last week during their big win over Green Bay. He had 125 yards in that game plus he has 28 catches and three touchdowns in his last four postseason games. Watch for Crabtree to leave his mark in Charlotte!
CE: One of the keys to the game for the Panthers is being able to open up their playbook, notably on passing plays, without Steve Smith. Carolina wide receivers coach, Ricky Proehl, has been doing his part to get the rest of the receiving corps ready if Smith is unable to play every snap or is not performing at a high level. Ultimately, it may come down to how balanced they are on offense. Defensively, if the Carolina front seven can get the kind of pressure on the Niners backfield like they did in Week 10, they should be in good shape.
The 49ers will have two players back that were not available in their first meeting with Carolina in Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. What kind of impact does that give Colin Kaepernick knowing he will have two of his offensive playmakers on the field Sunday?
RT: Giving Kap two additional targets to go along with his run-and-gun offense should be the extra push San Francisco will need to overcome the Panthers at home, where they are 7-1 this year. We all know Colin can run the ball when he is under pressure, heck he has 362 rushing yards over four playoff games. His favorite TE Davis back at it along with the flypaper hands of Crabtree will only add to the offensive opportunities for Kaepernick, so I definitely think this dynamic duo will make a difference on Sunday.
CE: Both defenses are considered two of the best in the league. Are you anticipating another low-scoring affair, or will the offenses be able to put a few more points on the board?
RT: The 49ers have only allowed 17.2 points against their defense and even more impressively, the Panthers have held their opponents to a mere 15.1 points this season. Right now the over/under in the sportsbooks puts this game at 42 points and while the stats tell me to take the under, I’m really thinking these defensive workhorses will cancel each other out, leaving the QBs a chance to shine. I think we are going to see a few more points this time around, so you heard it here first: Take the over!
RT: I would LOVE to see a strong rivalry between Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton. I really enjoyed the playful competition expressed by Kap and Seattle QB Russell Wilson in the Madden commercial. Maybe we can get Cam to agree to wager an eyebrow on this game?
CE: That would be a sight to see!
I've mentioned this before in a previous article before their Week 10 game, and I firmly believe they can have the kind of rivalry that will be out of the division, but one where they could see each other during the playoffs, if not the regular season.
I think for Carolina, the difference maker on offense will be Cam Newton and his ability to play in a big game and try to be accurate with his passes. Defensively, there is no doubt it is Luke Kuechly. He has been the leader of that unit and he makes his presence known on nearly every down.
Who do you think is the difference maker for the 49ers on offense? Defense?
RT: Crabtree is going to be Kap’s target on Sunday to gather up yardage and TDs. He had 125 yards last week against Green bay and will continue to rack the mileage up this week. As far as the defensive playmaker, linebacker Ahmad Brooks is having his best season ever with the 49ers, taking down 8.5 sacks and 52 tackles. Watch for him to pressure Cam Newton and probably even drag him down for some negative yardage.
CE: San Francisco pulled out a clutch road win last week at Green Bay. Do you think they will have an edge over Carolina with the momentum from that victory? Or do you think the Panthers will have an advantage coming off a bye and being able to get a jump on reviewing the 49ers game tape?
RT: The Niners are on a seven-game win streak and yes, I think their momentum built with that win in the arctic tundra of Green Bay will carry them to victory on Sunday in Charlotte.
CE: The Panthers' history of playing after a bye week has been favorable, so I expect them to play with something to prove Sunday.
What measures do you think the 49ers will take to prevent the Panthers from blitzing and pressuring Kaepernick? He was sacked six times by Carolina in Week 10.
RT: I’m thinking maybe they should get some voodoo dolls and cross their fingers, 'cause the reality is the Panthers have hammered out a league-leading 60 sacks this year and sadly, I don’t see them slowing down against the 49ers. I do, however, think Kap has more confidence and rhythm with his offense this far into the season and that means even when pressured, he will maintain his composure better than back in November when the Panthers squeaked out a one-point win. Look for Colin to use those fast feet to keep free of tackling machine Luke Kuechly long enough to make the plays needed to bring home the win.
CE: It may take more than voodoo dolls to stop the Carolina defense. They are that good.
The winner of this game sets up another rematch with either Seattle or New Orleans. Which of the two, between San Francisco and Carolina, would offer the biggest challenge to the winner of that game? In my opinion, I think both measure up well. However, I have to be a bit of a homer and go with the Panthers based on their ability to get the huge win over the Saints and how close they played the Seahawks in Week 1.
RT: I’m hoping to see a part three of the San Francisco–Seattle showdown. They are 1-1 this year, and I know Russell Wilson wants to battle it out with his “buddy” Colin Kaepernick one more time to see who reigns supreme. The raw emotion of that fight should make it the tougher game for the Hawks, so let’s hope it happens!
CE: On your Tweets and Answers segment from earlier in the season, you said the Niners were the one wild-card team that could make a deep run in the playoffs. How does it feel to be looking like a football prognosticator?
RT: While I would love to tell you how amazing I am at calling games, the truth is I made that bold prediction with a little bit of “Niner Love” mixed in where actual statistics might have been more at home. Don’t get me wrong, I will claim that prediction all day long, but just so I don’t get too big of a head, I’ll go ahead and say, “Even a broken watch is right twice a day.” Did I mention Colin follows me on Twitter?
CE: I have to be honest, I certainly felt that Carolina could be a legitimate threat as a wild-card team. I was pleasantly surprised at how they were able to get a few breaks and clinch the division crown instead.
Finally, what is your prediction for Sunday's game?
RT: Niners win it after a tough defensive standoff and some key plays between Kap and Crabtree: 24-21.
CE: I think the scoring will be a bit lower. I'm inclined to predict a Panthers win by a score of 17-13.
I would like to thank Roni Taylor for taking time to discuss the game with me. It should be a great matchup. With the promises of a tough and physical meeting, it should be fun to watch. Both teams have been the best in the league since Week 6, with the Panthers going 11-1 and the 49ers going 9-2. Carolina will be looking to extend their four-game winning streak over their former rivals.
San Francisco and Carolina will kick off the early game Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
I encourage fans of both the Niners and the Panthers to follow me on Twitter (and Roni Taylor as well)