NFL Divisional Playoffs: What to Watch for in Sunday's Games
While those questions won't be answered once and for all today, the matchup between Jim Harbaugh's club and Ron Rivera's squad will certainly be an interesting divisional-round clash between two strikingly similar, defensive-minded teams.
In the late game, those gritty San Diego Chargers will look to take down the high-scoring Denver Broncos for the second time in a month.
Let's examine what should be monitored in Sunday's action.
49ers at Panthers: Battle in the Trenches
When the Carolina Panthers sprung the semi-upset over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10, Ron Rivera's team sacked Colin Kaepernick six times.
A.J. Klein, Luke Kuechly, Dwan Edwards, Mike Mitchell and Charles Johnson got in on the act.
Kaepernick isn't exactly the most proficient coverage-reader at this point in his NFL career, which leads to an undesirably high amount of sacks.
In 2012, his sack percentage was 6.8. This year, it jumped to 8.6.
The Panthers led the league with 60 quarterback takedowns during the regular season, and they're probably the only team that stacks up with the 49ers' defensive front seven in terms of overall talent and sheer ferociousness.
Kaepernick is fresh off a 98-yard rushing day in the wild-card win over the Green Bay Packers, and he might need to use his legs to pick up yardage today if and when protection breaks down.
The winner of this trench battle will give its team a major advantage.
49ers at Panthers: San Francisco's Bolstered Receiving Corps
Many believe much of Kaepernick's struggles during the 2013 season stemmed from the absence of blossoming No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree.
They're probably right.
He's averaged 7.6 targets in the six games he's played this season, including 13 targets in the wild-card win over the Packers last week.
Kaepernick seems much more comfortable in the pocket knowing he has the reliable Crabtree out wide.
Over the six-game stretch in which Crabtree has been back on the field, Kaepernick has had four games with a passer rating over 108.
Although his rating was only 75.3 against Green Bay a week ago, Crabtree accounted for 125 of Kaepernick's 227 passing yards and eight of his 16 completions.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh waxed poetic about his star receiver, telling Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle: "In the northern snowlands, down to the tropics' sunny scenes, he's catching the football. Where they throw a football, he'll be catching it."
While tight end Vernon Davis must not be ignored down the seam, Crabtree is clearly Kaepernick's favorite target.
If he gets loose for another high-volume outing, San Francisco will likely be in a great position to move on to its third consecutive NFC Title Game.
49ers at Panthers: The 'Other' Linebackers
Luke Kuechly, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Thomas Davis formulate one of the finest linebacking quartets we've seen on a field in a playoff game in quite some time.
Kuechly and Bowman were first-team All-Pros in 2013.
While Willis and Davis didn't receive All-Pro recognition, the former was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) No. 2-rated inside linebacker behind Bowman, and the latter was the No. 3 4-3 outside linebacker behind Von Miller and Lavonte David.
All four will have a major impact on the outcome of this game, but we have to pay attention to their linebacker mates.
Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein don't get on the field often, but the rookie from Iowa State, Klein, was given a PFF plus-1.9 grade for his performance against the 49ers in Week 10.
On the other side of the ball, strong-side linebacker Ahmad Brooks was a second-team All-Pro this season; however, rather interestingly, PFF ranked him as the No. 23 3-4 outside linebacker out of 29 who played at least 50 percent of their respective teams' snaps this season.
Which Brooks will show up Sunday?
Chargers at Broncos: San Diego's Offensive Efficiency
The San Diego Chargers offense isn't predicated on hitting long shots downfield—it's solely based on being ultra-efficient.
Philip Rivers led the NFL with a 69.5 percent completion percentage and a Pro Football Focus Accuracy Percentage of 78.8.
(According to Pro Football Focus, accuracy percentage "accounts for dropped passes, throwaways, spiked balls, batted passes and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball - factors that hurt the quarterback's completion percentage but don't help show how accurate they are.")
Also according to PFF, Rivers' average depth of target (in yards) was only 8.1, the fourth-lowest figure among quarterbacks who took at least 50 percent of their respective teams' snaps this season.
In his two outings against the Denver Broncos in 2013, Rivers completed 31 of 49 passes (63.2 percent) at a solid 7.83 yards-per-attempt average.
San Diego averaged a combined yards-per-play average of just under 5.0 in both meetings with the Broncos but averaged an impressive 5.9 yards per play over the course of the entire season.
Rivers will throw an assortment of short passes and hope his receivers can maximize yards after the catch to sustain long, clock-devouring drives.
Chargers at Broncos: Eric Decker's Role
Wes Welker hasn't played since a Dec. 8 game against the Tennessee Titans after suffering a concussion.
Though he's an entirely different wide receiver, Eric Decker needed to step up, and he had a mixed bag of performances down the stretch for the Broncos.
In the home loss to the Chargers the following week, the veteran caught two passes for 42 yards on five targets.
Against the hapless Houston Texans in Week 16, Decker exploded for 10 catches, 131 yards and two touchdowns.
In the season finale against the Oakland Raiders, he caught four passes for 27 yards and had one score.
Welker will play today, and it'll be intriguing to see how the presence of the pesky, chain-moving wideout will affect Decker's contributions.
With Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos don't necessarily need Decker to have a monstrous outing, but they'll hope he can be a factor in the passing game.
Chargers at Broncos: Knowshon Moreno's Production
Knowshown Moreno had a resurgent, career-saving season with the Denver Broncos in 2013. After combining for 972 yards from scrimmage in 2011 and 2012, the former first-round pick amassed 1,586 total yards this season on 301 touches.
He averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per carry and 9.1 yards per catch while scoring 13 touchdowns.
In the Nov. 10 victory over the Chargers in San Diego, Moreno ran it 15 times for 65 yards and caught eight passes for another 49 yards.
A month later, Moreno was given the ball only eight times and totaled 19 yards. He added five receptions for 36 yards.
Did the Chargers tweak their defensive game plan to stop the underrated facet of the Broncos' attack?
With Wes Welker back in the lineup, Denver will likely go pass-heavy in this one, but Moreno is an integral part of the Broncos offense.
Keep an eye on his production in this one.
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