Before the season started not many saw the Carolina Panthers hosting a divisional-round playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, but that is exactly where we stand after an excellent season from Cam Newton and company.
The 49ers and Panthers met in one of the season’s lowest-scoring games of the year in Week 10 when Carolina knocked off San Francisco 10-9. That game was on the West Coast and featured performances from Newton and Colin Kaepernick that both quarterbacks would like to forget.
While both defenses are tremendous, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where there isn’t at least a little more scoring in the playoff rematch. Let’s dig into a discussion on some of the key stars and a final-score prediction.
You would be hard-pressed to find a game in Kaepernick’s career that was worse from an individual-production standpoint than his Week 10 performance against the Panthers, and Luke Kuechly was a major reason why.
Kaepernick finished with 91 passing yards and an interception and was sacked a career-high six times. Kuechly registered one of those sacks and was a menace in the San Francisco backfield all game.
He ended up with 11 tackles and two tackles for loss against the 49ers. On the season, he led the Panthers with 156 tackles and even tallied four interceptions. He is the heart and soul of Carolina’s stout defense that ranks sixth against the pass and second against the run. He will need to make plays against the likes of Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis if the Panthers are going to win.
Look for another impressive performance against the 49ers offense.
Michael Crabtree missed the defensive showdown the last time these two teams met, which is one reason why Kaepernick struggled so much.
Few players have performed better in the postseason than Crabtree recently, which is evidenced by his 28 catches for 410 yards and three touchdowns the last four times he has taken the field in the playoffs.
Crabtree’s presence in the 49ers offense will help open up more running space for Gore and Kaepernick because Carolina won’t be able to cheat down as much in the box. With a fully healthy Crabtree, Davis and Anquan Boldin, it will be difficult for the Panthers to completely shut down this offense again.
The headlines in Carolina will likely start and stop with Newton, following the quarterback’s first career playoff game.
The signal-caller put up career highs in touchdown passes (24), passer rating (88.8) and completion percentage (61.7) and also ran for 585 yards and six touchdowns. He has truly tapped into that vast potential this season, although he struggled mightily the last time he faced the 49ers’ impressive defense with zero touchdowns, an interception and only 15 rushing yards.
For his part, Newton, per ESPN, said in a preview that he will try to keep things simple in his first-ever playoff game:
"You don't want to be overthinking things. I have yet to experience a playoff game, but I know the atmosphere will be hectic to say the least."
Newton may not have postseason experience, but he has come through in the clutch recently with four game-winning drives in the past 12 contests. The Panthers won 11 of those 12 games.
Carolina 21, San Francisco 13
Both defenses are excellent (San Francisco’s ranks seventh against the pass and fourth against the rush), so don’t expect much scoring, but Newton will come through when he is needed in the fourth quarter.
Look for the Panther’s playmaker to deliver behind the late-game confidence he has picked up in recent weeks with a game-clinching drive in the final minutes. Kuechly and company will wreak havoc on Kaepernick and Gore all game, and the combination of Carolina’s stout secondary and the raucous home crowd will make life difficult for the 49ers' passing game—even with Crabtree.
Carolina will once again knock off San Francisco.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.