The 49ers and Panthers are competing for a spot in the NFC Championship game, where the 49ers have gone the past two seasons (losing to the Giants in 2012 and beating the Falcons in 2013) and the Panthers last went in 2006 (losing to the Seahawks). The Bay Area News Group's Cam Inman breaks them down and picks his winner ...
This is Cam Newton's playoff debut, and he hasn't been one to wilt on a big stage. Three weeks ago, he clinched the NFC South title with a fourth-quarter comeback over New Orleans. Three years ago at Auburn, he dominated the SEC Championship game (408 total yards, six touchdowns) and delivered a national-championship win over Oregon (265 passing yards, two TD passes, 64 rushing yards). Drafted first overall in 2011, he passed for the most yards ever in a debut (422). His ensuing Panthers career hasn't been as consistently dazzling, but he still can make a grand entrance to the playoffs. The 49ers defense, however, didn't let Newton thrive in their Nov. 10 game, and they have the linebacker corps capable of neutralizing him.
Left tackle Joe Staley must set the tone for an offensive line that yielded six sacks in the Nov. 10 loss to Carolina. Staley often will go toe-to-toe with Greg Hardy, who accounts for 15 of the Panthers' league-high 60 sacks. Hardy didn't sack Colin Kaepernick in the teams' last meeting. Staley says the 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive end is "really slippery" and "finds a way to get off blocks" to make plays. Hardy had four sacks in the Panthers' last game, at Atlanta, after which he was asked if he's ever before dominated like that. Hardy's response: "Man, I dominated breakfast when I woke up." Staley's response upon hearing that: "He must have had a heck of a breakfast."
WHEN THE 49ERS PASS
Colin Kaepernick, barring injury, can't have a worse outing than his career-low 91 passing yards in the last game against the Panthers. This time, Michael Crabtree is in the lineup, fresh from his Lambeau Field masterpiece (eight catches, 125 yards). Also available is tight end Vernon Davis, who left with a second-quarter concussion against the Panthers on Nov. 10. Crabtree, Davis and Anquan Boldin will need to find windows in the Panthers' zone and make more clutch, third-down catches. Obviously, the 49ers must protect Kaepernick better from one of the NFL's best fronts, led by the sack tandem of Greg Hardy (15 sacks) and Charles Johnson (11). Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has returned five of his seven career interceptions for touchdowns. Safety Mike Mitchell's four interceptions this season were twice as many as his entire Raiders career (2009-12).
WHEN THE 49ERS RUN
Starting running backs are averaging only 43 rushing yards against the Panthers over the past 20 games. But Frank Gore nearly doubled that figure with his 16 carries for 82 yards in Week 10. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will clog the middle, but it's Luke Kuechly's sideline-to-sideline speed that makes him the Panthers' most dominant tackler. Fullbacks Will Tukuafu and Anthony Dixon must knock Kuechly out of lanes, something left guard Mike Iupati also could do on the 49ers' favorite power runs. Carolina's zone defense -- especially linebackers Kuechly and Thomas Davis -- will make it harder for Colin Kaepernick to scramble for the big gains he had at Green Bay. The Panthers are allowing just 86.9 rushing yards per game (second only to Arizona; 84.4).
WHEN THE PANTHERS PASS
Cam Newton has passed for at least 200 yards in only three of the Panthers' past eight games, completing over 20 passes only once in that span. He will be more elusive than Aaron Rodgers last week, but the 49ers pass rush looks in full gear with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith played just 12 snaps last meeting in his first game back from personal issues. The Panthers passing attack won't be as potent if Steve Smith struggles (or plays at all) with a knee sprain. Tight end Greg Olsen (team-high 73 catches, six touchdowns) will be a challenge for linebacker Patrick Willis, as well as safeties Eric Reid and Donte Whitner. Brandon LaFell starts opposite Steve Smith and could be a threat in the slot, where the 49ers are likely to deploy Perrish Cox again in place of Carlos Rogers (hamstring).
WHEN THE PANTHERS RUN
DeAngelo Williams, Carolina's all-time leading rusher, wove his way through the 49ers defense for the only touchdown in their Week 10 meeting. Williams (843 yards, 4.2 per carry) has more speed and is a greater receiving threat than the 49ers' Gore, at least in the eyes of 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Cam Newton is the Panthers' other top threat, and NaVorro Bowman might be summoned to chase after him as he did so well in 2011 against Philadelphia's Michael Vick. Newton, who ran for just 15 yards in Week 10, is Pro Bowl bound along with center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert. "As a nose guard, you look forward to games like this, where there is a lot of emphasis on the run," said the 49ers' Glenn Dorsey. The 49ers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
If this comes down to a field goal, the 49ers will gladly send in Phil Dawson, who won their past two games on field goals as time expired at Arizona and Green Bay. The Panthers' Graham Gano leads the league in touchback percentage on kickoffs, and he's made 24 of 27 field-goal attempts (6 of 6 on 50 yard-plus). Former 49ers returner Ted Ginn Jr. ranked sixth in the league on punt returns (12.2 yards per return). LaMichael James seems close to breaking a big return for the 49ers, who used his 37-yard kickoff return Sunday to spark a fourth-quarter TD drive at Lambeau. Punter Andy Lee grew up some 2½ hours from Charlotte in Westminster, S.C.
Jim Harbaugh can become the first coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to advance to conference championship games in each of his first three seasons. But Harbaugh must first beat his former Chicago Bears teammate and Panthers counterpart Ron Rivera, whose job seemed tenuous after a 1-3 start. Rivera then morphed into "Riverboat Ron" with a gambling, aggressive style that's helped translate into wins in 11 of Carolina's past 12. This is Rivera's playoff debut in three seasons at Carolina. Harbaugh does not believe his assistants have been distracted by job prospects elsewhere, and more success would seem to enhance the résumés of Greg Roman, Vic Fangio and Jim Tomsula.
Overcoming harsh elements -- oh, and the host Green Bay Packers -- should instill the 49ers with confidence that they can conquer anything in their path to Super Bowl XLVIII. Two years ago, the New York Giants knocked off the defending champion Packers at chilly Lambeau en route to the Lombardi Trophy. Winning again on the road won't be easy, but a fully stocked 49ers team makes that possible at Carolina. Cam Newton's inexperience and Steve Smith's injury will hurt the Panthers' chances. The 49ers will take an eight-game win streak into the NFC Championship game next Sunday. Score: 49ers 27, Panthers 16