The San Francisco 49ers are bidding to appear in their third consecutive NFC Championship Game, but they must first defeat the Carolina Panthers at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium in the divisional round on Sunday, Jan. 12.
These teams squared off in Week 10, when the shorthanded San Francisco offense was no match for the elite Panthers defense.
Carolina won that contest 10-9, and this one figures to be a physical, lower-scoring affair as well. With two high-upside running games and a bevy of star defenders, this postseason showdown is likely to come down to the two young quarterbacks.
Below are predictions for who will be the top stars in this epic clash, along with a projection of what the final score will be.
Predicted Top Stars
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
The competitive fire Kaepernick shows and the return of some of his key weapons for this matchup suggest that he won't have nearly the nightmarish outing he had in Week 10, where he threw for a season-low 91 yards.
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
Here's a fact, though: Two of his three postseason victories have come against the Green Bay Packers—an opponent apparently incapable of containing him as a runner.
It's quite a different story with regard to the Panthers' athletic front seven, featuring the likes of defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson along with a standout linebacker corps.
TheMMQB.com's Robert Klemko has his popcorn ready:
I'll take SEA, IND, CAR, DEN and there are few matchups that excite me more that Kuechly/CAR D vs. Kaep.— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) January 11, 2014
However, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh will undoubtedly be adding new wrinkles and opening Kaepernick up more than they were when he struggled in the middle of the season.
Look for Kaepernick to have a far better game numbers-wise, with only one interception denting his overall performance and a better effort than the 16 yards he racked up on the ground in the previous meeting.
Projected Numbers: 15-of-27 passing for 220 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 6 carries, 30 yards
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
There is nothing Kuechly can't do in the middle linebacker spot. The second-year stud is the heart and soul of the Panthers defense and is as good in coverage as anybody in the NFL.
Kuechly is also a sturdy tackler who is rarely out of position or misses an assignment. Given the Niners' penchant for pounding the rock with running back Frank Gore, it will take a big, sustained effort from Kuechly to keep Carolina within striking distance.
Kuechly should be up to the task, looking at his magnificent 2013 campaign in which he racked up 156 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions.
With the capability to play all three downs, Kuechly should not miss a snap as long as his health permits—even against such a physically formidable foe.
Given Kaepernick's tendency to lock onto Davis at times, look for Kuechly to break up a number of passes in addition to being in on a plethora of plays between the tackles.
Projected Numbers: 12 total tackles, two passes defensed, one sack
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers
The only viable wideout the Niners had during the regular season was Anquan Boldin, and now that Crabtree has returned, San Francisco has a different offense.
Crabtree was the leading receiver for the Niners last year, and per ESPN Stats & Info, his impact on Kaepernick has been substantial:
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
After the team's victory at Lambeau Field over the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card Round, Harbaugh had some colorful words to describe how Crabtree is the best "catcher" ever, per the San Jose Mercury News' Cam Inman:
People talk about cold weather and it’d be tough to catch balls. But the greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything. It’s unbelievable. 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.
Although the Green Bay defense wasn't nearly as stout as Carolina's, it was still impressive that Crabtree snagged eight receptions for 125 yards in only his sixth game back from a torn Achilles.
As sensational as the Panthers are as a whole on the defensive side, the secondary is the one area exploitable for Crabtree and Co.
With his precise route running, underrated ability in the open field and, yes, his prowess as a "catcher," he will post another stellar outing.
Projected Numbers: 7 receptions, 110 yards, TD
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
It wasn't pretty for Newton in San Francisco, but he still did enough to guide his team to a game-winning, field-goal drive at Candlestick Park and made key completions down the stretch.
Newton has been clutch in critical moments as the season has worn on, which is a big reason why the Panthers have taken the next step, won the NFC South with a 12-4 record and gotten a first-round bye.
If there are any nerves for the 2011 No. 1 overall pick before his first taste of the playoffs, he's not showing it, per WCCB Charlotte's Kelli Bartik:
#Panthers Cam Newton: I don't get nervous before big games. Anxious. I wish we could play today.— Kelli Bartik (@KelliBartik) January 8, 2014
The Niners will be able to spy Newton with the likes of All-Pro linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who can also lock up one of his key receiving threats in tight end Greg Olsen in coverage.
NFL Network's Jeff Darlington has the latest on receiver Steve Smith's status, which the veteran quipped about in tossing out a rather random number:
Steve Smith then adds, "There's an 89 percent chance that I'll play on Sunday." ...Dude has jokes.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) January 10, 2014
Since Smith seems good to go with his knee injury, Newton will be able to at least utilize him as a decoy and open up other opportunities for the likes of Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.
Newton's power and perpetually growing confidence after winning 12 of 13 games will also allow his rushing total of 15 yards from Week 10 to increase drastically. It will have to if he's meant to allow the Panthers to advance.
Projected Numbers: 20-of-32 passing for 250 yards, TD; 8 carries, 50 yards, TD
Final Score Projection: Panthers 27, 49ers 24
Who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII?
There will be a little bit more offense on display in this contest due to the stakes and big-time players rising to the occasion. Weather also doesn't seem to be a factor, with the forecast from Wunderground.com predicting sunshine and 54 degrees.
It's hard to pick against the Niners given how much of a fixture they've been in the NFC title game in recent seasons, but this is when the Panthers take a big step.
These two teams play such a physical style of football in an age of high-flying offenses but have wild cards at the most important position under center.
Something about the combination of home-field advantage, the general fortune Carolina has found this season and Newton's rapid maturation bode well for the Panthers' chances in addition to a legitimate, great defense.
This score figures that Kaepernick will throw a late, flukey tip-drill interception, and Newton will make a couple eye-popping throws to set up a winning field goal by Graham Gano as time expires.
Instead of an all-NFC West clash to decide the conference's Super Bowl XLVIII participant, it will be the Panthers traveling to take on the Seattle Seahawks in a rematch of what will turn out to be Week 1's most retrospectively important game.