Two months later, the 49ers get another crack at them.
This is not the same 49ers team that barely lost back in November. They have their No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree healthy and are playing at a very high level. Tight end Vernon Davis suffered a concussion during the first game; he's scored six touchdowns in as many playoff games. Linebacker Aldon Smith has returned to the squad and is terrorizing passers again.
Perhaps the biggest difference: Kaepernick and the 49ers' passing attack is effective again. He is seeing the field better and knowing when to run. His game against the Panthers represented the nadir of his season: 22 passing attempts for only 91 yards, with six sacks incurred and one interception. The 49ers had one completion over 11 yards -- it went for 14.
Panthers-49ers is a beautiful matchup of outstanding defenses led by rangy linebackers. It features two smash-mouth running games. And it has two of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league in Cam Newton and Kaepernick.
I have no clue who is going to win or who I'm going to pick. But I know the Panthers are going to have to play even better to win again.