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Divisional Round Weekend preview: 49ers-Panthers

The backstory

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The 49ers have the NFL's longest active winning streak at seven games. They have allowed a league-low 14.9 points per game since Week 4. At this point in the season, there's a strong argument to be made that there isn't a more complete team in the league.

The Panthers haven't lost at Bank of America Stadium since the season opener, when a late-game DeAngelo Williams fumble ended their chances of beating the Seahawks. While their 12.0 points per game allowed at home leads the league by nearly two full points over Seattle, the offense is not any better than it was under Rob Chudzinski a year ago.

This is a rematch of a Week 10Panthers victory at San Francisco that featured the fewest combined yards (401) of any NFL game this season. It was also one of just eight games that had only one touchdown between the two teams. The primary difference between then and now is that 49ers stars Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Aldon Smith are at full capacity.

Under pressure

Cam Newton, QB, Panthers: Whereas the Panthers were the only NFL team to rush for at least 80 yards in every regular-season game, they joined the Bills and Bucs as the only offenses with only one passing performance over 275 yards. The aerial attack did not progress over the course of the season. Newton missed too many throws, particularly in the four-game stretch to close out the season.

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To Newton's credit, he's been excellent on third downs and in crunch time. His passer rating is 19.6 points higher in the second half of games, and five of his six rushing scores have come in the third and fourth quarters. Meanwhile, 10 of his 13 interceptions have been tossed in the first two quarters of games.

Steve Smith estimated that his sprained knee was at "71 percent" in his return to Wednesday's practice. Ted Ginn has been the passing game's lone big-play threat for the majority of the season. If the Panthers are going to win, it's on Newton to make sharper throws and escape the pocket in key situations.

Matchup to watch

Panthers' front seven versus 49ers' offensive line: Sean McDermott's Carolina defense led the league with 60 sacks during the regular season.

Colin Kaepernick was sacked six times and held to 16 rushing yards and only one completion over 11 yards in the Panthers' Week 10 victory. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davisoutplayed the 49ers' more ballyhooed linebacker duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

Although a knee injury made defensive end Charles Johnson a non-factor for a five-week stretch, he appears to be back to peak form for the playoffs. Johnson and fellow bookend rusher Greg Hardy combined for five sacks and eight quarterback hurries against Matt Ryan in the regular-season finale.

San Francisco boasts one of the NFL's premier offensive lines, but Carolina is a rare defense capable of getting to the quarterback without blitzing. If Kaepernick's hot streak is going to come to an end, Hardy and Johnson will have to spend plenty of time in the backfield.

Mind-blowing stats

The 49ers haven't lost with Michael Crabtree on the field this season. Whereas only Matt Cassel averaged fewer passing yards per game than Kaepernick from Weeks 2 to 11, Kaepernick has led the NFL in touchdown-interception ratio since Week 12. ... Kaepernick averages 47.4 more passing yards and 57.4 more rushing yards per game in postseason than regular season. ... Although he's played just four playoff games, Kaepernick already ranks fifth behind Steve Young, John Elway, Roger Staubach and Donovan McNabb in postseason rushing yards by a quarterback. ... The 49ers are attempting to become the first team in the past decade to win the Super Bowl after entering the postseason with a winning streak of at least five games.

The Panthers would be the lowest-ranked total offense (26th) ever to make the Super Bowl. ... Before Jonathan Stewart's Week 14 knee sprain, DeAngelo Williams averaged 4.49 yards per touch. Since then, Williams has averaged 7.12 per touch. ... From 2011 to 2012, Calvin Johnson was the only player with more pass plays of at least 20 yards than Steve Smith. This year, there were 135 players with more pass plays of at least 20 yards. ... Captain Munnerlyn had more combined sacks and touchdowns (six) than any defensive back in the league. ... Hardy recorded 8.0 sacks in the final three regular-season games, including a franchise-record 4.0 in Week 17.


Brace yourself for a low-scoring slobberknocker reminiscent of the Steve McNair-Eddie George era Titans banging bodies against the Ray Lewis-Jamal Lewis Ravens early last decade. These teams are mirror images of each other. The 49ers' style of play doesn't require a home-field advantage. If the Panthers' defense and raucous crowd can recapture their Week 16 form, however, it's going to be a challenge for even the NFL's hottest team to escape with a victory. I will be shocked if this is not the closest game of Divisonal Round Weekend.

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