A win today against the Carolina Panthers on the road would send the San Francisco 49ers to a third consecutive NFC Championship game. The last such team to do so was the Philadelphia Eagles from 2001-2004, the latter of which resulted in Andy Reid’s only trip to the Super Bowl as the Eagles head coach. A win would also make Colin Kaepernick 3-0 on the road in his playoff career. To put that into perspective, Steve Young and Joe Montana combined to go 1-9 on the road in the playoffs as members of the 49ers.
Panthers offensive playmakers Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart remain questionable for the game…both are expected to be game-time decisions. It is, however, an overwhelming belief that Smith will be able to go while Stewart will need to show Panthers’ coaches that he’s close to 100 percent. Smith is the bigger of the two for Carolina heading into this game, as he’s clearly Cam Newton’s favorite target in the passing game. If he is unable to go or is limited, it could really impact the Panthers passing game.
San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers, who suffered a hamstring injury Week 17 against the Arizona Cardinals, didn’t practice during the week and is unlikely to go in this one. This won’t impact who the 49ers line up against Smith, as Tarell Brown was already going to be given that task. It does impact who lines up on the outside and in the slot. Expectations are that Tramaine Brock will get the start with Perrish Cox playing nickel. Cox played 63 of a possible 64 defensive snaps against the Green Bay Packers and gave up just one reception on two targets. Interestingly enough, Rogers was San Francisco’s most inconsistent defensive back during the regular season, going for a negative 6.8 grade, according to Pro Football Focus.
Carolina is one-point home underdogs heading into the matchup today. It is only the third team to not be favored in the divisional round of the playoffs since 1993. These 49ers were home dogs against the New Orleans Saints back in 2011 and ended up winning on The Vernon Post. Meanwhile, Carolina closed as home dogs against the Dallas Cowboys back in 1996 and ended up pulling off the upset win against Troy Aikman and Co. Can Carolina make it three for three?
Whoever wins this game will be traveling to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink, where Russell Wilson has lost only once in his career. While that will prove to be a rather mighty task, it’s important to note that Wilson has struggled a great deal as of late and will have to take on one of the top-three defenses in the entire NFL…no matter the outcome of the game today. Including the win against New Orleans yesterday, Wilson 35-of-68 for 388 yards with two touchdowns and one interception (72.4 rating) in his last three games…all at home.
Seattle’s win on Saturday guaranteed that Candlestick Park will never see another NFL football game. The San Francisco landmark is schedule to be torn down later this season and the 49ers are moving into a brand new state-of-the-art stadium in Santa Clara in 2014. There were some that hoped Candlestick would have a last hurrah next week, but that unlikely scenario will not play out.
Whether San Francisco or Carolina come up short in this game, each will face the real possibility of losing a coordinator to another NFL team. Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has drawn a ton of interest, especially from the Minnesota Vikings. Meanwhile, both Greg Roman and Vic Fangio have been courted by multiple teams around the league. Such is the nature when you have success at the highest level.
While this is Carolina’s first trip to the postseason since 2008, 21 players have playoff experience…including 10 from the Panthers run some six years ago. Meanwhile, 20 of 22 49ers’ starters have postseason experience, the only exceptions being free-agent signee Glenn Dorsey and rookie safety Eric Reid.
For someone who waited until the latter stages of his career to be on a winning team, 49ers’ running back Frank Gore could reach a milestone today. He is just 46 yards away from passing Steve Young on the all-time 49ers postseason rushing yards list, behind the great Roger Craig. That’s pretty insane.
Kaepernick and Newton went a combined 27-of-54 for 260 yards with zero touchdowns in two interceptions in their Week 10 matchup at Candlestick…a game Carolina won by the score of 10-9. You can expect better performances from each quarterback this time around. Kaepernick has his favorite receiving target in Michael Crabtree back and Vernon Davis, who missed all but a couple drives in the Week 10 matchup, is 100 percent and ready to go. Interestingly enough, Newton has thrown eight touchdowns and five interceptions in his last five home starts. Not exactly groundbreaking numbers right there. Kaepernick, on the other hand, has tallied 16 touchdowns compared to two interceptions in his last eight road starts.