While Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers is technically a rematch, much has changed in the last 2 months since the Panthers travelled to Candlestick Park and outslugged the 49ers 10-9. WR Michael Crabtree did not suit up for San Francisco and TE Vernon Davis suffered a consussion in the second quarter and did not return. Without two of his most dependable targets, QB Colin Kaepernick continually found the cupboard bare as he dropped back to pass. The 49ers managed just 3 field goals that day yet only lost the game by one point. Can the combined presence of Crabtree and Davis push the 49ers offense over the hump and propel the team into the NFC championship game?
In the regular season matchup against the Panthers the 49ers lined up Mario Manningham at wide receiver for 42 snaps and Kyle Williams for 20. Even Jonathan Baldwin wandered onto the field for 3 plays. None of these players will be in uniform on Sunday and presumably none will be missed, as this sub-par group of wide outs managed only 4 catches for 35 yards combined. They will be replaced in part by rookie Quinton Patton, but mostly by Crabtree, fresh off of 8 catches for 125 yards in the frigid wild card game in Green Bay. The offense also sorely missed Davis’ 850 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns in that second half versus Carolina. After Kaepernick had one of his worst games as a pro in the first meeting, the presence of Crabtree, Davis and Anquan Boldin should lend the young quarterback a tremendous amount of confidence that was sorely lacking the first time around. Kaepernick followed up a terrible performance versus Carolina with another less than stellar game against New Orleans in the Superdome the following week. Since then he has been rock steady, throwing for 11 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. Kaepernick has his favorite target back in Crabtree, who is approaching his pre-achilles tear level of deadliness. He has one of the NFL’s top tight ends available to him for (presumably) the entire game. The rocket arm and gazelle like legs melted the Packers hopes on the frozen tundra last week. The brash confidence that propelled a young QB who had 7 starts under his belt to lead a team to the Super Bowl last season is seemingly back. The exceptional Carolina Panthers defense will be facing a much different Colin Kaepernick and a much different 49ers offense.
Despite the offense doing next to nothing the first time around, Frank Gore still managed to average over 5 yards a carry against the NFL’s second best run defense. This team is supposed to be built upon the run game, despite OC Greg Roman completely forgetting this at times (those times usually coming in the red zone). Getting Gore rolling downhill and running for tough, positive yards will only help to open up the offense as a whole. The complete disregard for Kendall Hunter is puzzling. After rushing for nearly 500 yards as a rookie two years ago, Hunter’s usage has gone by the way side. He has only carried the ball 7 times in the last 3 weeks and was only on the field for 5 offensive snaps versus Green Bay this past Sunday. Some runs to the outside displaying Hunter’s quickness would be a nice change of pace to Gore’s rugged carries between the tackles.
On the other side of the coin, the 49ers defense played up to it’s usual high standard in the first meeting. This despite losing several key components during the course of the game. Ray McDonald went down in the second quarter with an ankle injury and rookie Eric Reid departed in the third when he was concussed during a vicious collision with human bowling ball Mike Tolbert. Look for Reid to switch up his tackling style should he again come face to face with Tolbert on Sunday. Aldon Smith, fresh out of rehab at the time, only played 12 snaps. Even with playing 3 starters down, the defense was dominant all afternoon. They repeatedly gave the ball back to the offense who in turn could do absolutely nothing with it. Carolina managed only 250 yards of total offense. Cam Newton had a quarterback rating of 52.7. As far as this Sunday goes, the Panthers only legitimate wide receiver, Steve Smith, has a sprained knee and will be way less than 100% going into the game, if he plays at all. Smith had a down year, averaging 49 yards receiving a game, 30 yards fewer than he averaged in 2011-12. The one area of real importance Smith provided the Panthers this year was as a third down security blanket for Newton, hauling in 17 balls on third down that produced first downs. A declining and now hobbled Smith would be a major blow to an already thin Carolina wide receiver corps. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon are reminiscent of some of the shoddy wide receiver groups the 49ers have been forced to roll out in recent years due to injury. Tight end Greg Olsen would then become someone that the 49ers defense could shift a lot of their focus to, as he led the Panthers in receptions, yards receiving and touchdown catches. Taking him away could turn Newton into Kaepernick circa November 10th.
The first meeting between these teams was a knock down, drag out, heavyweight slug fest, complete with the 49ers losing several key players to injury. The fact that the 49ers did little to nothing on offense yet still came very close to winning the game should inspire some confidence going into this Sunday’s playoff game. A handful of plays were very much the difference in a win or a loss last time. If the usually sure tackling defense didn’t miss several tackles on DeAngelo Williams‘ 27 yard touchdown run, they might have held the Panthers to a field goal and prevented them from scoring the only touchdown of the game. Kendall Hunter lost the only fumble of his three year career late in the third quarter, causing the 49ers win probability to go from 83% to 60%. Vance McDonald (in for an injured Vernon Davis) dropped a 30 yard pass down the middle of the field that would have at least set up a field goal in the fourth quarter. The Panthers and the 49ers are mirror images of each other and this game should be as close as the last game. It could very well come down to making one or two more plays. The 49ers can’t afford to leave any plays on the Carolina turf the way they left plays on the Candlestick turf. Packing a confident quarterback and a full assortment of play makers for their trip to the south should go a long way to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
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