Niners' Road to Super Bowl Isn't Easy

San Francisco would have to beat teams that already have beaten it this season, with the Panthers up first

After their victory over both the Packers and the winter elements of Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, the 49ers are understandably riding high.

But if they want to return to the Super Bowl, their next two opponents will be tough to beat. In fact, they will have to go through teams that already have beaten them this season.

First up are the Carolina Panthers this Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. The Panthers are the No. 2 seed in the NFC tournament and defeated the 49ers at Candlestick Park in early November, 10-9.

Should the Niners get past the Panthers, they’d face either the No. 1 seeded Seahawks in Seattle – where San Francisco was dominated in a 29-3 loss Sept. 15 – or the sixth-seeded Saints. The 49ers would host the Saints, but New Orleans defeated them 23-20 on Nov. 17 – the last time the Niners lost a game. Since that defeat at the Superdome, San Francisco has won seven straight games, including the playoff victory at Green Bay.

But first, the 49ers would need to win this Sunday.

Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 1- to 2-point favorites for Sunday’s game against the Panthers, despite Carolina’s earlier victory. But the 49ers are a hot team that is playing much better offensively now with the return of receiver Michael Crabtree and the better play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Several NFL analysts this week designated the 49ers as the NFC’s best team right now.

The Panthers understand all that. They saw how the 49ers performed in the victory over the Packers, and they remember what a physical, tough game they had against the 49ers in their November victory in San Francisco.

“It’s a new game,” Carolina linebacker Chase Blackburn told the team’s website this week. “Just because we beat them once doesn’t give you the right to say we are going to beat them again. We have to execute.”

Added All-Pro Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert: “I expect it to be a fight to the end again.”

The Panthers are built much like the 49ers with a strong defense, solid running game and a play-making quarterback in Cam Newton who can beat defenses by either running or passing.

Carolina ranked No. 2 in total defense in the NFL this season, allowing just 301.2 yards per game. The Panthers also ranked No. 2 in scoring defense, giving up just 15.1 points per game, a tick better than the No. 3 scoring defense of the 49ers (17 points per game).

Tolbert is the lead blocker for the NFL’s 11th-best rushing attack.

Being picked as an underdog on their home field against the 49ers might give the Panthers some extra motivation, perhaps, but it doesn’t sound like it. Said Carolina cornerback Drayton Florence: “Well, they picked us to finish last in the division. We really don’t listen to what people predict about us.”

Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh has now turned his attention to the Panthers after having what he called a “happy flight” home from Green Bay after the playoff victory. He’s already studied film of Carolina, and knows what to expect from their first matchup.

“A very good and dominant front seven,” he told reporters Monday. “Excelent 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 several defensive categories with very well coached, sound schemes and very good players.”

But, he said, his 49ers are a different and much better team than in November.

“More dangerous,” he said of his team. “Michael Crabtree was not out there for that game and Vernon (Davis) was out of the game early with a concussion, et cetera. I think more dangerous.”

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