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Underdog Panthers prepare for different 49ers team

The SportsXchange

CHARLOTTE -- When they last met, the Carolina Panthers went to San Francisco in Week 10 and beat up the 49ers in a 10-9 win.

One would think Carolina, which earned the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, would be the favorite heading into Sunday's divisional playoff rematch at Bank of America Stadium. Instead, the Panthers opened up as two-point underdogs.

"It's kinda funny," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said Monday. "I guess being the underdog takes the pressure off of us and on them."

All laughs aside, Rivera said he does believe the 49ers team the Panthers will see this week is even better than the one they faced in November.

In that game, defensive end Aldon Smith played only 12 snaps in his first game back after spending five weeks in a treatment center. Carolina also missed having to match up with Michael Crabtree. The wide receiver returned from an Achilles' injury in Week 13 and the 49ers have not lost since. In addition, tight end Vernon Davis left that game with a concussion.

But as well-rounded as the San Francisco appears, the Panthers ended the regular season as arguably the hottest team in the NFL. After winning 11 of their last 12 games, the Panthers do hold an advantage of resting last week while the 49ers needed a last-second field goal to win their wild-card game in frigid Green Bay, then returning back to California to prepare for Carolina and a cross-country trip to North Carolina.

The extra rest certainly was a benefit to Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith. After spraining his left knee in Week 16, Smith missed the regular-season finale in Atlanta and claimed he would not have been able to go if the Panthers had a wild-card game last weekend.

But Monday, Smith said he will play against the 49ers, even though his effectiveness is still a question.

"It's not about, 'Can I go?' It's how confident do I feel when I am going?," Smith said. "I will play Sunday. It's about how much of that do I don't worry about the knee. That's when the confidence increases."

And even if the knee is still bothering him, Smith's return should increase the confidence of the entire offense. So while the Panthers may not head into Sunday as favorites, they have plenty of reasons to believe they can again knockout the NFC's defending champs in what should be another slugfest.

The 49ers landed in San Francisco thinking about a defensive struggle.

"A very good and dominant front seven," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of his thoughts on the Panthers. "Excellent in the secondary, very physical. They've added very nice players at the safety position and they've done a nice job at the corner position. Free agent or draft, they've put that defense together really well and they play well together. They lead in top five in several defensive categories, with very well coached, sound schemes and very good players."

--The Panthers were more than pleased to earn a first-round bye, they could have a quick playoff exit if recent history holds. They are 0-3 coming off a bye in the Ron Rivera era, and in their last playoff appearance five years ago, they were blown out as the No. 2 seed by the Cardinals.

"We understand that we haven't played well in the past coming off a bye week," linebacker Tom Davis said. "We have to make sure we can't allow what happened in 2008 to happen again."

--Professional wrestler Ric Flair has lived in Charlotte since the 1970s, and since the city did not have any major professional sports teams until the NBA's Hornets were born in 1988, Flair was the town's biggest star for many years.

So when the Panthers started using Flair's legendary "Wooooo!" chants to celebrate wins this season, it felt like a perfect marriage between team and city.

But to many, Flair turned the heel when he flew to Green Bay this weekend to give the 49ers a pep talk before their game against the Packers. "Ric Flair's heart is with the 49ers all the way to the end," Flair told the 49ers, on a video released by the WWE.

Carolina cornerback Drayton Florence started the Panthers' "Wooooo" tradition, but when asked Monday about Flair's appearance for the 49ers, Florence quickly said, "I'm not talking about that," and turned away.

Fellow cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, apparently feeling less scorned said,

"I'm sure they gave him a little money, but I don't feel betrayed at all. We said the chant and they came and they brung him in. At the end of the day, it's a football game going to be played. It's not about Ric Flair, it's not about wrestling, it's about playing football on Sunday at 1:05."

--The Panthers signed six players to future contracts: wide receiver Toney Clemons, guard Derek Dennis, guard/tackle Oscar Johnson, cornerback DeQuan Menzie, linebacker D.J. Smith and defensive tackle Casey Walker.

Smith, a Charlotte native who starred at nearby Appalachian State, started the first six games of the 2012 season for the Packers before tearing his ACL.
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