San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers: Divisional Round Preview

The San Francisco 49ers are looking for revenge against the Carolina Panthers after losing their first matchup at home, 10-9. It was by no means a pretty game and both teams struggled to move the ball - it was a classic defensive struggle that featured only one touchdown. These two defenses on display were two of the better defenses in the NFL this season. Both Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick tend to struggle a bit against the NFL's elite defenses, which we saw in their first showdown of the year.

The Panthers were absolutely dominant on the defensive side of the ball when they played the 49ers in week 10. The 49ers were only able to gain 151 total yards of offense, including just 46 net passing yards. No NFL team will win a playoff game with only 46 passing yards - San Francisco will need to do better. The bright side for the 49ers was that Frank Gore was able to find some success, averaging just over five yards per carry and gaining 82 yards on the day. Gore has struggled over the past few weeks and will have to improve in order for the 49ers to beat the Panthers on the road.

One of the reasons the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick struggled to get anything done in the passing game against the Panthers in week 10 was because the offensive line provided very little protection. The Panthers sacked Kaepernick six times and forced him to throw a late game interception when the 49ers had a chance to drive for the game-winning field goal. The passing game from the first matchup can be partially blamed on the offensive line and partially blamed on Kaepernick. Kaepernick will have to be able to make quick, smart decisions against a pass rush that wastes no time getting to the quarterback.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the 49ers have struggled against top-ranked defenses ever since Kaepernick took over the starting job. Lately, the passing game has been non-existent against good defenses in most circumstances, which can't be the case on Sunday for the 49ers. If Kaepernick stares down one receiver and doesn't go through his progressions to find other open targets, the Panthers defense will have a field day - they're fast and can contain him from making big plays on the move.

The 49ers defense was able to hold the Panthers to just 250 yards in week ten, which would be enough for a win against most teams. They were able to shut down the Panthers strong running attack (with the exception of one DeAngelo Williams 27-yard touchdown run), which makes their numbers look a little better than they actually were. The 49ers did a great job of limiting Cam Newton from making plays with his legs, limiting him to 15 rushing yards. One of the keys to the game for both defenses will be preventing the opposing quarterback from making big plays with his legs.

Jim Harbaugh seemed to protect Colin Kaepernick from running for much of the regular season. That quickly changed when the playoffs began and Kaepernick ran for a season high 98 yards against Green Bay. Most of the runs he made were key plays in the game that converted long third downs - especially on the game's final possession, where he made multiple plays that allowed the 49ers to run the clock out and kick the game winning field goal.

Phil Dawson has been a huge free agent addition for the 49ers. Dawson has made multiple game-winning field goals, including a game-winner in each of the last two games. Dawson made 32 field goals in the regular season, missing just four. A reliable kicker is a huge asset in the playoffs, as was proven on Wild Card weekend when two of the four games were won on last second field goals.

One of the biggest questions for a team coming off of a first-round playoff bye is whether or not they will be ready to play. The Panthers are a very well coached team, led by Ron Rivera who will most definitely have his team ready for his playoff debut as a head coach. Cam Newton will also be making his NFL playoff debut, and he has proven in the past that he isn't afraid of the spotlight - he was excellent when it mattered most in in the BCS National Championship game with Auburn.

This game will end up being a slugfest with many huge hits. It features three of the best linebackers the NFL has to offer in Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Luke Kuechly. All three are elite level defenders among the best at their position. Both Willis and Kuechly led the NFL in tackles their rookie seasons and earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Bowman was a third-round pick by the 49ers who came out of nowhere and earned the starting linebacker position in just his second season. I expect all three of these linebackers to have a huge impact on the game, and they could have a big part in determining the winner.

In the end, I expect this to be a low-scoring game, just as it was in week ten. I also expect field goals to play a huge part in this game because both teams are so good at preventing their opponents from scoring touchdowns. The 49ers will ride the momentum from their Wild Card weekend win against the Green Bay Packers, and beat the Panthers 16-13.

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