The return of linebacker Aldon Smith (No. 99) Sunday should help the 49ers' pass rush. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
They’re on a winning streak, they’ve won each of their games in the streak by double-digit margins and have one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers? Yes. But it also describes the Carolina Panthers, who come to Candlestick Park Sunday to face the Niners.
The Panthers (5-3) have a four-game winning streak and a hot quarterback in Cam Newton. During those four games, Newton has a 109.8 passer rating – fourth best in the league – and has rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns. Newton is big, strong and fast, but he also has a cannon arm capable to completing long passes against the 49ers secondary.
“Man, we watched him on film and he can throw the ball,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “He doesn’t have to have his feet into it and he can sling it.”
Newton also has four receivers with more than 350 yards receiving in Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, Brandon LaFell and ex-49er Ted Ginn Jr. Plus running backs DeAngelo Williams (519 yards rushing) and Mike Tolbert (206 yards) create a balanced attack.
The Panthers are averaging 25.5 points per game (12th in the NFL) and 130.1 yards per game rushing (eighth) and should create some challenges for a San Francisco defense that has played very well during the 49ers’ five-game winning streak. In October, the 49ers allowed just six TDs and 12.5 points per game.
Now, too, the 49ers get Aldon Smith back on the field, after a five-game absence. Smith, who has returned from time off at a treatment facility, isn’t expected to start Sunday, but could be used in pass-rush situations. During his absence, the 49ers went 5-0. But over their past four games, they’ve had just five sacks. In just three games this season, Smith has 4½ sacks.
“I’m sure he will play some,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Not sure how much.”
On offense, the 49ers are eager for the return of wide receiver Mario Manningham to the lineup Sunday. Though San Francisco ranks 16th in the NFL in offense and No. 1 in rushing, it ranks No. 32 in passing. Manningham could help give QB Colin Kaepernick more down-field options.
The Panthers this past week have been excited about the matchup with the 49ers. Though Carolina has won four straight, the combined record of its opponents in its five victories this season is 8-33. So, Panthers players known they can make a statement by beating one of the NFL’s best and hottest teams in its own stadium.
“It’s a game that a lot of football talking heads are talking about,” Carolina safety Mike Mitchell told reporters. “So if we beat them, now they have to talk about us. But don’t get it twisted in any way – we’re a confident team. We know we’re a good team and we made some mistakes early on and we know our record should be better than it is. We have a lot of respect for San Francisco, but we’d like to keep ourselves relevant by beating them.”
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 6½-point favorites.