When the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers take the field on Sunday for their NFC divisional round clash, the players will be under more pressure than they've faced all season. But no player on either side has as much on the line as quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton.
The most obvious reason for the increased pressure is what's at stake. Both teams are three wins away from winning the Super Bowl. With injuries and player movement as common as they are these days, playoff-run windows can be taken away in an instance. It's always best to seize them in the present.
There are several other reasons athletes face pressure.
Job security, performance-based pay and individual legacy are all common factors.
Though some of these factors may not apply immediately to Kaepernick and Newton, they all will be affected by their performances on Sunday.
Case for Cam Facing More Pressure
Newton has been tremendous in clutch situations this season. He's led four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
But that will all be forgotten if he bombs his first career playoff start.
"I feel as if I haven't achieved anything worth mentioning—yet," Newton said, per Bryan Strickland of Panthers.com. "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."
Translation: Newton needs a Super Bowl title before he has achieved "anything worth mentioning."
His response suggests he's putting pressure on himself, but it's hard to quantify how much. After all, several athletes and teams who have never been on the big stage have proved that they are up for the challenge.
In fact, Newton himself is a great example of that.
In his one season as a collegiate starting quarterback, he led Auburn to an undefeated season and national championship. He faced several new obstacles along the way—leading a comeback victory on the road against Alabama and winning the SEC Championship Game, to name two—and conquered them all.
If Newton plays poorly and the Panthers lose, many will wonder if he has what it takes to be a championship-caliber NFL quarterback. However, his script will not be written on Sunday.
He led the Panthers from obscurity to relevancy this season. Even if the stats say he's average for a starting quarterback, the perception is he carried Carolina's offense to a 12-win season.
Some—including Yahoo! Sports' Eric Edholm—even included him in MVP talk.
It doesn't take much to go from rising star to playoff choker. Just ask Andy Dalton. That being said, Newton has at least a year before having to worry about such labels. He's a franchise quarterback for an up-and-coming team, and it's likely he'll sign a massive long-term extension this offseason.
More than anything, Newton is facing the pressure that people feel when they fear the unknown. The first-playoff-game jitters may get to him.
Case for Kap
When does perception become reality?
A poor performance against the Panthers will feed the media-driven perception that Kaepernick can't perform against good defenses.
As I'm sure you've heard or read several times in the past few days, Kaepernick's five worst games were against the four best teams the 49ers played this season.
Nevermind that the four losses were without Michael Crabtree. Nevermind that he won 12 regular-season games this year. Nevermind that he's led the 49ers to game-winning fourth-quarter drives in their past two wins, both on the road.
Right or wrong, many believe that Kaepernick is holding the San Francisco offense back.
Yet, at some point even the most optimistic 49ers observer would have to admit that Kaepernick's struggles against elite defenses are a troubling trend. And with all his weapons healthy, those undecided about him as a viable playoff-contending-team quarterback will swing their votes based on this game.
On top of that, some believe the 49ers should have kept Alex Smith and traded Kaepernick.
Whereas Newton has been embraced by his fanbase, Kaepernick is living in the shadow of Joe Montana, Steve Young and the rich 49ers history. Until he wins a ring, he'll be known as the quarterback who couldn't get the 49ers five more yards in Super Bowl XLVII.
Like Newton, Kaepernick isn't facing imminent job-security questions. As for Kaepernick's future, ESPN.com's Bill Williamson predicted in November that the 49ers will ultimately give him a long-term extension. A Super Bowl run this season would leave no doubt.
This time of year, you'll often hear analysts say a team has nothing to lose. I've never given any credence to such statements.
There's no question that Carolina's expectations weren't as high coming into this season. But when the Panthers take the field, they'll know they have everything to lose. Even if Ron Rivera says otherwise.
"Being the underdog I guess takes pressure off [us] and puts pressure on them,"' Rivera said Monday, per David Newton of ESPN.com. "Now they have expectations for them."
I don't blame Rivera for saying what he said. He's trying to get his team to play more loose. Nothing wrong with trying.
But it's impossible to know how Kaepernick, Newton or any other player will react to the pressure of Sunday's game.
However, if you had to choose the quarterback who will face more scrutiny from a loss, the answer has to be Kaepernick.
The 49ers began the year with Super Bowl-or-bust expectations, and Kaepernick hasn't reached the level of play he showed in last year's playoffs.
Was his 2013 playoff performance a fluke? Is he destined to struggle against great defenses for years to come? Is he the weak link for an offense that—with Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore—would be better off with a new quarterback?
With a dud against the Panthers, Kaepernick will be facing these questions—and many more.