Game of the Week: Can Cam Newton and the Panthers take next step against 49ers?

Frank Schwab

Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton have all made the playoffs already.

It's not fair, but the reason Cam Newton hasn't gotten his just due for his unbelievable accomplishments is he hasn't made that postseason trip like his fellow young quarterbacks. He and the Carolina Panthers have a chance to change that this season.

Carolina has won four games in a row, and are right in the mix in the NFC South at 5-3. But the problem is that the Panthers haven't beat anybody. They've defeated the Giants, Vikings, Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons. Not a quality win in the group. There's a great opportunity for one this week.

The Panthers and their four-game winning streak travel to San Francisco, where the 49ers and their five-game winning streak await. A win there, and Carolina can validate everything it has done this season.

Newton has played very well the last four weeks, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. The Panthers re-committed to using him in the running game, something that was very successful for Newton's first two seasons. Newton will only get the respect he deserves as an elite quarterback after winning some big games.

The funny thing is, the Panthers' defense has probably been a bigger reason than Newton for the team's run at its first playoff berth since 2008. The Panthers are one of three teams in the NFL allowing less than 300 yards per game (Houston and Seattle are the other two), and hadn't allowed any first-half touchdowns before last week. The front seven is absolutely dominant.

Then again, it's been a while since Carolina's defense has had a challenge like it will get this week.

San Francisco is also surging. After a sluggish start to the season the 49ers have scored at least 30 points in five straight games. The running game is the best in football at 153 yards per game. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is finding a groove, as he did late last season. The 49ers also have fattened up against bad opponents so they're looking to show this revival is legitimate, as well as keeping pace in the NFC West with 8-1 Seattle.

These are two similar teams, with great defenses, strong running games that include their star quarterbacks, and tough, athletic defenses. Carolina doesn't have the winning reputation of San Francisco. The Panthers hope that can start to change on Sunday.

Here are the other NFL games this week, from best to worst (all times Eastern, all games Sunday unless noted otherwise):

2. Denver at San Diego, 4:25 p.m.: The Chargers might be the unluckiest 4-4 team in a long time, after blowing three wins in the first half. They can start to make up for that with an upset against the 8-1 Broncos.

3. Detroit at Chicago, 1 p.m.: With Aaron Rodgers out for Green Bay, this could end up being the game that determines the NFC North championship this year. The Bears need this one after losing the first matchup in Detroit.

4. Dallas at New Orleans, 8:30 p.m.: This one could be fun. The Cowboys have a poor pass defense, which is bad news against Drew Brees. But Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense can put up plenty of yards and points too.

5. Cincinnati at Baltimore, 1 p.m.: The Ravens aren't the same team that won last year's Super Bowl. The Bengals can take a huge step towards a AFC North title with a big road win.

6: Seattle at Atlanta, 1 p.m.: This might not be a classic like last year's playoff matchup, because the Falcons are slumping badly. But it's a test to see if the Seahawks can snap out of their perplexing midseason slump.

7. Philadelphia at Green Bay, 1 p.m.: You wouldn't have thought a few days ago that Eagles quarterback Nick Foles would be the best quarterback in this game. The Packers have to figure out a way to remain afloat until Rodgers can return.

8. Buffalo at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.: Buffalo rookie quarterback EJ Manuel might return from a knee injury, and this young Bills team is interesting. The Steelers will try to recover after being blown out at New England.

9. Oakland at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.: Any game with Terrelle Pryor is interesting, and the Giants' attempt to recover from an 0-6 start is worth monitoring.

10. Washington at Minnesota, 8:25 p.m. (Thursday): Last season's playoffs seem like a long time ago for both teams. But still, it's Robert Griffin III on one side and Adrian Peterson on the other.

11. Houston at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.: The Texans suffered a back-breaking loss last week against the Colts, but quarterback Case Keenum might be establishing himself as Houston's future.

12. Jacksonville at Tennessee, 1 p.m.: Tennessee is trying to stay in the playoff race. The Jaguars just want a win.

13. St. Louis at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.: The Rams probably won't provide much of a challenge, but Andrew Luck is always a treat to watch.

14. Miami at Tampa Bay, 8:40 p.m. (Monday): The sideshows with each team are way more interesting than the game itself.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!