The second participant for the NFC Championship Game will be decided when the Carolina Panthers host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Jan. 12, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
This showdown pits two of the NFL's top five total defenses during the regular season, and the Panthers also ranked second in scoring defense, while the Niners ranked third.
It made sense that the outcome was so low-scoring in Week 10 at Candlestick Park, where Carolina was able to pull off a 10-9 road victory.
Circumstances were far different then from now, though, and this raised-stakes affair should see better execution from both offenses, which are led by two extremely athletic quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and the Panthers' Cam Newton.
Below is a look at when and where to catch the game, along with a final preview and prediction for who the winner will be.
When: Sunday, Jan. 12, at 1:05 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Preview and Prediction
Considering the caliber of defenses on display, this shouldn't be anything less than a barn-burner featuring hard hitting and a heavy dose of running from both teams.
The Niners have a deep stable of backs, headlined by 30-year-old Frank Gore. Between him, the speedy LaMichael James, young playmaker Kendall Hunter and even Anthony Dixon, there are plenty of options for San Francisco to choose from.
However, Carolina is afforded a similar luxury with the likes of DeAngelo Williams and fullback/tailback hybrid Mike Tolbert, who can also catch the ball out of the backfield.
Jonathan Stewart is a capable ball-carrier who can't seem to stay healthy, and he is inactive for Sunday's game, per the Panthers' official Twitter account:
Then again, as NFL.com's Chris Wesseling points out, it seems that when Stewart's workload has decreased due to injury, it has greatly benefited Williams:
But while both running games should have an even amount of success, the outcome hinges on the passing attacks quarterbacked by two of the most dynamic dual-threat players at the position.
Kaepernick missed Vernon Davis for much of Week 10's meeting and didn't have his top receiver from 2012 in Michael Crabtree. Both figure to be big parts of the action in this one, with Crabtree recording eight receptions for 125 yards in last week's win versus the Green Bay Packers.
The health of Panthers veteran receiver Steve Smith is up in the air. Peter Schrager of FoxSports.com noted what Smith's status was as of Friday, Jan. 10:
If Newton is without his go-to target, it will be difficult for him to thrive in his playoff debut and will only intensify the scrutiny on the 2011 top overall draft choice. However, the rising star has dealt with the spotlight throughout the past several years in college and in the pros, and he endured two losing seasons before guiding his team to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title this year.
The supporting cast isn't great, but Newton has versatile backs at his disposal that can run and catch, and his powerful running style should allow him to shake loose more than he did in Week 10 and convert in the red zone.
CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco believes Newton will be the difference in pushing the Panthers over the top—a stance yours truly agrees with:
The 24-year-old signal-caller has been criticized at times in his young career for his attitude, but it seems his rapid maturation is ringing true both on and off the field. Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News recorded what Newton had to say ahead of Sunday's tangle:
I feel as if I haven’t achieved anything worth mentioning — yet. Everyone talks about the great season that myself and others have had, but we all come to each other and say, "There’s nothing worth mentioning unless we have something that we can all share with each other for years and years to come.
Those things that I really want, that everyone has set forth for this season, are all in reach.
Newton has made the most of a mediocre receiving corps all season long and has been on the wrong end of many dropped passes in key moments. That hasn't stopped him from coming back strong, retaining faith in his wideouts and firing lasers in clutch situations.
Carolina will earn the right to advance to the NFC title game, where winning at Seattle will be a tall task.
Still, the Panthers will deny the Niners a third straight trip to that deep stage of the playoffs, with their young nucleus taking a big step and Newton leading the way with a clutch, game-winning drive yet again in front of the home crowd.
Pick: Panthers 24, 49ers 20