Lots of things have changed since the first time these two teams played each other, and probably the biggest change is health. The 49ers seem to finally be healthy after limping through the regular season with injuries at a plethora of positions. In their first match up, the 49ers were most notably missing Michael Crabtree, and Ray McDonald, Vernon Davis and Eric Reid all left the game early with injuries. Those are four major impact players for the 49ers, and those aren’t even all the players that were injured for that game.It’s not fair to say that the 49ers would’ve won with those players on the field, because that’s taking away from the Panthers and making excuses. But to ignore the impact that they could have and would have made on the game would be naive. Maybe Crabtree makes a few catches that move the chains and continue drives. Maybe Vernon Davis catches the pass the Vance McDonald dropped deep in Carolina territory. Maybe McDonald fills up the hole or makes the tackle on DeAngelo Williams’ touchdown run, or maybe Eric Reid is in position to stop just one pass that helps the Panthers get in position to kick a field goal. We don’t know. What we do know is that all these players are back for this game and we will get to see just the impact that they will have. If the 49ers’ defense can hold the Panthers’ offense like they did in the first game, the 49ers can win this game. Remember, the first game’s score was only 10-9. It’s not crazy to think that both Davis and Crabtree are worth three points.
While he wasn’t injured per se, when the 49ers played the Panthers the first time, it was Aldon Smith’s first game back from a five game hiatus. He played very limited snaps, and even on some of those he was asked to play coverage. This time however, the 49ers’ linebacker is back up to speed and ready to play. Even with out him, Cam Newton was 16/32 with only 169 yards and no touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked three times that game. Whether or not Smith is getting sacks, he is still someone you have to game plan for. He wreaks havoc in the pocket and although it may not appear on the stat sheet, the quarterbacks definitely feel it. Smith had 1.5 sacks last week against Green Bay, and he is going to be looking to add to those numbers.
The Offensive Line
The 49ers’ offensive line is constantly called the best in football. Now you can definitely make the case because they are all great players, but 49ers’ fans know they could be average to bad in pass blocking. That’s what we saw in the first match-up. Kaepernick was sacked six times in the week 10 game. Now those sacks were a combination of bad pass protection, Kaepernick holding on the ball, terrible receiver play, bad play-calling, and great play by the Panthers’ pass rush. Now all those can and for the most part have been fixed except for the Panthers’ pass rush. That pass rush is still there and it’s still going to be coming. The 49ers’ offensive line are going to have to play some of their best football against that beastly front seven. Can they hold their own against them? Yes. Will they do it? That depends to be seen. Kaepernick is going to need all the help he can get from his offensive line against this Carolina defense.
This is the most obvious, but also the biggest factor of this game. The 49ers’ chances all hinge on Kaepernick’s play. It’s no secret that Kaepernick had a terrible game the first time against the Panthers, but since then he has gradually gotten better and better. The biggest factor for him has been Michael Crabtree. Ever since Crabtree has come back, Kaepernick has been playing at the level everyone has been expecting him to play at all year. In the 11 games that Crabtree was out, Kaepernick threw over 200 yards only three times. In the six games Crabtree been back for, Kaepernick has thrown four 200 for four of them and just missed another one by three yards. Kaepernick looks much more comfortable on the field when Crabtree is on it with him.Kaepernick is no stranger to road playoff games. He’s already gone 2-0 in his first two years. That’s more than any other 49ers’ quarterback in the history of the franchise, so travelling to Carolina won’t be anything new. Last week against the Packers, Kaepernick had a good game through the air and on the ground. He picked crucial third downs both passing and running the ball. He had 227 yards with one touchdown and one interception, coupled with 98 yards on the ground, which were incredibly important on their scoring drives. Kaepernick seemed to hold back from running during the regular season for some reason, but since it’s now win or you’re out, Kaepernick and the 49ers are pulling out all the stops. Kaepernick and the 49ers are going to need to utilize both his arm and his legs to win this game.
Now, the Panthers defense is not the Packers defense, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be beat. If you had to pick a weakness in Panthers’ D, it would be their secondary. That’s where Crabtree and Vernon Davis come in. Two major factors they didn’t have for the first game.
Kaepernick is going to need to be on the top of his game. The Panthers are no joke. There’s a reason they were the number two seed in the NFC. But Kaepernick can’t treat them like they’re some sort of boogeyman. They can be beaten, and he and the 49ers have all the pieces in place to do it.