The Carolina Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers will meet for the second time this season in the divisional round of the playoffs to determine which NFC juggernaut will move on to the conference championship game.
Like the Week 10 meeting that saw the Panthers win by a 10-9 margin, this showdown will be a gritty defensive battle where a few key players will dictate the outcome.
When one realizes that the Panthers allowed an average of 15.1 points per game in the regular season—with the 49ers right behind at an average of 17—it becomes apparent that one big play from a star will change the fortunes of two franchises rather quickly.
Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers
Veteran wideout Steve Smith was a critical piece for the Panthers in 2013 with his 64 receptions for 745 yards and four scores. He was just as important in the aforementioned Week 10 win thanks to his six catches for 63 yards.
Normally, Smith would not make a list such as this because of how obvious it is that he will have an impact. However, a knee injury that has him officially listed as questionable for the contest necessitates his inclusion.
Smith himself says the odds of him playing are great, while fellow receiver Ted Ginn attempts to describe just how important the veteran is, per NFL.com's Around the League:
Steve Smith sets his odds of playing at "89 percent." Ted Ginn: "He's our LeBron" http://t.co/Qsdw2CYyL4— NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) January 10, 2014
Let's give Ginn a mulligan here—Smith is the Dwyane Wade to Cam Newton's LeBron James. Regardless, he sounds ready to go and will surely have an impact if he does. Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler concurs:
Don't let Steve Smith fool you. He's catching 6 balls for 90 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.— Aaron Nagler (@Aaron_Nagler) January 10, 2014
Smith's ability is unquestionable. If he can produce while hobbled, the Panthers are headed to the conference title game.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Go ahead and call this obvious, but Colin Kaepernick's complete ineptitude in the Week 10 loss sunk the 49ers.
ESPN has the eye-popping details:
The last time 49ers/Panthers faced each other, Colin Kaepernick had one of the worst games of his career. pic.twitter.com/Cj32tUyzts— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 8, 2014
However, Kaepernick has seen his play dramatically improve since the return of Michael Crabtree:
Since Michael Crabtree made his season debut in Week 13, Colin Kaepernick has the 3rd-highest Total QBR in the NFL (76.9).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 8, 2014
While an assuring factor for the 49ers, the Nevada product's 11-of-22 line for 91 yards and an interception from Week 10 must weigh heavy on the minds of the team and fans alike.
The return of Crabtree is certainly a plus as Kaepernick will be forced to take to the air once more and produce against the Panthers. His ability to do so, especially with more weapons this time around, will give the 49ers a good shot to win when paired with a strong rushing attack led by running back Frank Gore.
Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers
Greg Hardy is an important man. He's also a very angry man.
Hardy totaled 15 sacks in 2013 and the Panthers were 8-0 when he recorded at least one. While he was held to a goose egg in Carolina's Week 10 win, Hardy played a role in Kaepernick's horrific outing and is looking to do so once more, per ESPN.com's David Newton:
Sucks for him. Should have played better. Hope he comes Sunday. Anybody that goes against me is going to have a bad day. I'm a really, really angry person. I've got a bad attitude. So, it's one of those things, you know.
Feel free to feel bad for Kaepernick.
Hardy is not a household name, but he is one of the top defenders set to partake in the action and can single-handedly create a game-changing play of his own—or force the 49ers into a mistake that has a similar impact.