With seven straight victories, a revitalized offense and a big win over the Packers in frigid Lambeau Field last weekend, the 49ers are being labeled by some as the hottest and most complete team in the NFC playoffs.
So when the Niners play the host Carolina Panthers this Sunday, it will be the fifth-seeded visitors from California who will be the favorites over the No. 2 seed Panthers in their own stadium. Oddsmakers have made the Panthers anywhere from 1- to 3-point underdogs.
Yet in their earlier meeting this season, it was the Panthers who prevailed, 10-9. And Carolina, with a playmaking quarterback in Cam Newton, a solid ground game and a swarming defense led by All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, is a confident team that believes it can beat the Niners again.
So what has to happen for the 49ers to win Sunday and advance to the NFC Championship Game against the winner of Saturday’s Saints-Seahawks game? Here are five keys to a 49ers victory:
Offensive line: In the first matchup, Carolina dominated San Francisco’s offensive line, a rare occurrence in recent seasons. The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks this season. They not only sacked quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times – four times when they rushed just four players --but the 49ers also couldn’t run the ball as well as they hoped against a front seven that ranks among the best in the league. On Sunday, tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis will have to contain ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, with center Jonathan Goodwin, must open some gaps for Frank Gore to wiggle his way through up the middle.
Wide receivers: In the first game, San Francisco could muster just 91 yards passing. That total has to be much higher Sunday, and the performance of the 49ers’ wideout corps – Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton – needs to be very good. Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed tape of the first 49ers-Panthers game and noted that Colin Kaepernick was often on target in the first game against Carolina, but because of drops and pressure the passing game just didn’t click. Crabtree’s presence in the rematch could be the X factor. The 49ers are undefeated since his return from injury.
Tight end: Not only was Crabtree out that first game, but tight end Vernon Davis was forced out early in the game with a concussion. His presence should make a difference. If Kaepernick can find Davis a couple of times early, it could loosen up the secondary for the wideouts.
Contain Newton: The Niners will get a dose of their own medicine when facing Newton. Though Newton rushed for just 15 yards on eight carries in the first game, Newton rushed for 585 yards this season – more than Kaepernick’s 524. Like Kaepernick, Newton can be a game-breaker with his legs, and the 49ers defense can’t let Newton get loose to pick up yards when the secondary has smothered Carolina’s receivers.
Touchdowns, not field goals: It’s a familiar refrain for San Francisco’s offense: the 49ers need to convert long drives into seven points, not three. Settling for field goals vs. the Packers early in last Sunday’s game almost cost them at the end of the game, and a failure to get TDs vs. the Panthers in November resulted in one of San Francisco’s four defeats this season.
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In short, it will be up to the 49ers offense to be much more productive than it was in that 10-9 loss.
“It definitely wasn’t our best day at the office,” said offensive coordinator Greg Roman this week. “It was definitely a … you’ve got to give the opponent credit first. I think when you go back, all the answers were on the film, really. There were some very unique things that took place in that game and was a little bit of a perfect storm, shall you say. But that’s a long time ago and we’re going to be playing a game Sunday. We’re a different team than we were that day and we’ll be playing in a land far, far away.”