(5) SAN FRANCISCO (13-4) at (2) CAROLINA (12-4): 1:05 p.m. ET, FOX
Neither the Carolina Panthers nor the San Francisco 49ers started the 2013 season with a bang. Both tallied two quick losses through the first three weeks before both proceeded to win 11 of their next 13 games.
The end result? A first-round bye for Carolina and the NFC's first wild-card spot for the Niners.
Sunday’s game will be the Panthers' first postseason matchup in five years, but it hasn’t even been 12 months since the 49ers' last Super Bowl appearance.
Will the rested Panthers playing as slight underdogs in front of the hometown crowd pounce on the opportunity to advance to the NFC Championship Game, or will the red-hot Niners keep right on trucking in their quest to win the conference and ultimately the league?
"It's kind of funny,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "Being the underdog, I guess, takes the pressure off us and puts it on them. Now the expectation is for them. We are at home and we are going to show up and do the best we can. It's a big week. We know it is. It'll be a lot of fun."
Aside from maybe the Seattle Seahawks, these two defenses are arguably the best in the NFL.
The Panthers ranked second in both points (15.1) and yards (301.3) allowed per game in the regular season, and led by DEs Greg Hardy (15.0 sacks) and Charles Johnson (11.0 sacks), they ended first in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt.
The 49ers weren't too shabby themselves. They ranked third in average points (17.0) and fifth in average yards (316.9) allowed. LB Patrick Willis has racked up seven Pro Bowls in seven seasons, yet he might not be the best (or even the second best) linebacker on the team. NaVorro Bowman compiled 143 tackles, 5.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions this season, while Aldon Smith brought his career sack total to a whopping 42 in 43 games.
The best way to exploit these defenses might be to utilize the quarterbacks as dual threats. Carolina QB Cam Newton led the league's quarterbacks with 585 rushing yards (only 12 of those came in their Dec. 15 home game vs. the Jets) and was the NFL's co-leader among QBs (tied with
San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, meanwhile, was right on Cam's heels with 524 yards (not to mention 98 more rushing yards last Sunday at Green Bay) and four rushing TDs.
Sunday’s game between the Carolinians and Californians will be a rematch of their Week 10 matchup earlier this season when the Panthers defeated the 49ers on the road, 10-9.
As both teams are well aware, though, 49ers TE Vernon Davis played less than one half that day after suffering a second-quarter concussion, and dynamic WR Michael Crabtree was on the Physically Unable to Perform list at that time as well.
Of course, you’ll have to excuse Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn for dismissing any excuses.
“I don't care if this guy was healthy or if this guy didn't play,” he said. “At the end of the day everybody gets paid in this league to go out there and make plays. We went on the road and beat the defending NFC champs. That was a huge win. I don't care how anybody else looks at it. We went in their house and got the win, and it kind of changed our season.”
A win on Sunday would really change their season.
Carolina leads the all-time series, 11-7, having won all four of their matchups in the last decade and eight of the previous 10 dating to 1999. This will be the teams' first-ever postseason meeting.
The Green & White saw what the Panthers are capable of first-hand when we lost to the Cats, 30-20, at Charlotte, NC.
It was, however, perhaps our “best” road loss, if there is such a thing. The Jets were competitive throughout, trailing by only three points headed into the final quarter before the aforementioned Munnerlyn delivered the final dagger with a pick-six off Smith.
Panthers backup TE Ben Hartsock played for the Jets in 2009-10. And starting TE Greg Olsen starred in high school at Wayne Hills, less than a half-hour from MetLife Stadium and the Meadowlands.
The 49ers will go to battle with Jonathan Goodwin starting at center for the 55th consecutive game, including the postseason. Goodwin was a Jets selection in the fifth round of the 2002 draft, although he started only 13 games in his four seasons with us.
Former Jets head coach Eric Mangini is a senior offensive assistant for the 49ers, Brad Seely (our special teams coach in 1994) is special teams coordinator/assistant head coach to Jim Harbaugh, and Ed Donatell (Jets secondary coach from 1990-94) is their secondary coach.