At first glance, this is your classic old school-new school NFL playoff matchup: one of the game's most storied franchises matching up against a team that, most seasons, barely qualifies as an afterthought. But these are the playoffs and this is the final eight, and we can take absolutely nothing for granted, especially in San Francisco - Carolina (1:05 ET Sunday, Fox), a game that could be the tightest of the weekend.
The 49ers came one play from a Super Bowl title, and then spent the first few weeks of the 2014 season looking like they'd squandered their best chance at a win as Colin Kaepernick cratered back to earth. The Panthers similarly started slow, but ran down the division-leading Saints and closed the year on an 11-1 run. That was good enough to snag a first-round bye and give the Carolina region the kind of hope that usually doesn't roll around until March Madness.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have grown into a playoff team the old-fashioned way: together, one step at a time. That's why Panthers receiver Steve Smith might just be the key to the season for Carolina. He's remained on the sidelines for most of the last month, but expects to play this game, and if he does, he gives quarterback Cam Newton a formidable weapon. Even at his advanced age, Smith stretches the field and forces a secondary into uncomfortable decisions. With him in the lineup, Newton always has a go-to option; without him, Newton will have to make do with a series of second choices.
Still, adaptability is a hallmark of both quarterbacks, as Kaepernick acknowledged when discussing Newton on Wednesday. “He’s a great player,” Kaepernick said. “He does a lot of things well. We do have some similarities.” (Related: the next time Kaepernick gives a memorable quote will be the first time.)
San Francisco struggled offensively at times during the season; the 49ers' 323.8 yards per game average ranks 24th in the league, second-lowest among all playoff teams. (Conveniently enough, the Panthers are lower, with 316.8 yards.) Kaepernick and Newton didn't exactly put on aerial displays of majesty, either; the Panthers and 49ers ranked 29th and 30th, respectively, in passing yardage. The 49ers do have a clear ground advantage, however, ranking third in the league in running this year. (Carolina was 11th.)
On the defensive side, both teams can run out some heavies. Luke Kuechly of Carolina has emerged as one of the game's best inside linebackers, a player who can disrupt games even when you're trying to run away from him. San Francisco, meanwhile, is downright terrifying with Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks anchoring their D. These two teams ranked second (Carolina) and fourth (San Francisco) in yards allowed. This game well could turn out 6-3.
Indeed, the game is going to come down to opportunities made and missed. Both Kaepernick and Newton have the ability to change an entire game with their mobility and improvisation; Kaepernick likely saved the 49ers' season last week at Green Bay with some fancy late-game scrambling. Similarly, Newton has on several occasions kept the Panthers rolling when every other option has failed him.
Prediction: San Francisco runs away early but Carolina hammers away, making it interesting ... but not interesting enough for Panthers fans. Final score: San Francisco 24, Carolina 21.