Closing in on 48 hours before their NFC Divisional round playoff on Sunday in Carolina, the 49ers and Panthers have been responding to questions all week.
Now it's our turn. 49ers.com senior reporter Taylor Price and contibutor Andrew Pentis provide answers to four key queries about Sunday's game.
Voice your opinions in the comment section below.
First Down: No player is more key than...
Taylor: Frank Gore. If he’s not finding the tiniest of creases to gash an opposing defense, the franchise rushing king is laying his body on the line to block for his teammates. The 30-year-old running back even showcased his hands out of the backfield last week with an impressive catch on a rifled Colin Kaepernick check-down pass. Why does last week matter? Because Gore, the ultimate football player, will be needed to do all of those things to beat the Panthers. Gore rushed 16 times for 82 yards in Week 10 against Carolina. It was a fairly successful day. One could only imagine what type of production Gore would have had if he was given 20 rushing attempts against one of the best defensive fronts in football. If San Francisco can get Gore rolling in the run game, the presence of a running attack will mitigate the aggressiveness of Carolina’s edge rushers.
Andrew: Aldon Smith. If the the 49ers are rushing Cam Newton's decisions and keeping him from escaping the pocket, Smith will be the most likely reason why. He'll have help of course. Defensive tackles Justin Smith and Ray McDonald and fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks have all been pressuring opposing quarterbacks in recent weeks, but there's something special about Aldon Smith. The regular season didn't match his expectations as he didn't reach the 20-sack plateau, one of his stated goals. Counting the team's Wild Card win in Green Bay, where he earned 1.5 sacks of Aaron Rodgers, Smith now has 10 this year. It wouldn't shock anyone to see that number creep toward 20 if San Francisco advances to a second straight Super Bowl. He, of course, played only a dozen snaps against Carolina in Week 10. When he's at his best – and the 49ers will need him to be on Sunday – the defense takes on a whole new personality, his.
Second Down: The most intriguing storyline is...
Andrew: The rematch. There's little doubt that the November matchup between these two teams didn't go according to plan. In addition to Smith's limitations, the 49ers offense was also without three pass-catchers that it will run out there on Sunday: wideout Michael Crabtree, who was still rehabbing his torn Achilles, and tight ends Vernon Davis and Garrett Celek, who each exited early on with in-game injuries. If San Francisco's coaching staff feels like it caught too many bad breaks two months back, they'd be understood. The Panthers coming to Candlestick Park and escaping with a one-point win should provide more than enough enough motivation. These 49ers don't want to lose to the same team twice in one season – and never have since Jim Harbaugh took the helm in 2011 – particularly when that same team can end their season.
Taylor: The quarterbacks. I’ve written about them extensively this week. Both Kaepernick and Cam Newton are two of the most captivating players in today’s NFL. Kaepernick has raised his game in postseason play, posting a 3-1 record. Newton, on the other hand, has never played in the NFL playoffs. Sure, he’s won a BCS title game in college, but the intensity of NFL postseason football is too strong to ignore. Newton will be counted on to lead his team and he will be facing a premier defense. Plus, the 49ers will have Smith as an every-down pass-rusher in this matchup, unlike Week 10 when the third-year pro had a limited role coming off his leave of absence from the team. It’ll be interesting to see which quarterback has the better game and is able to demonstrate their signature celebration the most.
Third Down: The 49ers will win if...
Taylor: San Francisco keeps Kaepernick upright. The Panthers totaled six sacks in the Week 10 win at Candlestick Park. Kaepernick never seemed comfortable in the pocket that game, but it’s worth noting several of the sacks came in the fourth quarter when San Francisco was in a hurry-up mode on offense looking to score the game-winning points. Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have stressed their respect for Carolina’s defensive front as a whole. Greg Hardy, or “The Kraken,” is a player to watch. Hardy totaled 15 sacks in the regular season, but he was held out of the stat column against three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley in Week 10. If Staley and his teammates can quiet the Panthers pass rush, Kaepernick will have time to find his weapons, a group that now included Crabtree and tight end Davis, unlike in Week 10.
Andrew: San Francisco has the ball last. Most experts are picking this game to be a close one, to be decided by a touchdown or less, and they have a good point to make. The 49ers have won their last two games by a combined six points. And Carolina is built similarly, boasting a strong defensive unit. This game may not be as low-scoring as the teams' last meeting, but it should be down to the wire. If Kaepernick and Co. gain possession with five minutes or fewer left on Sunday, fans have to feel good about their chances. But the same goes for Newton and the Panthers, doesn't it?
Fourth Down: Who should trade jerseys...
Andrew: Eric Reid and Mike Tolbert. In Week 10, the 49ers rookie safety was knocked over at midfield by the Panthers veteran running back. As a result, Reid suffered his second NFL concussion. In the time since, Reid said he has learned to hit bigger ball carriers – Tolbert outweighs Reid by as much as 40 pounds – below their torso. This postgame uniform swap would be a nice peace offering from one player to the other. Tolbert is no dirty player, just one that's tough to bring down in open space. So once the final whistle blows, Reid should track him down, wrap him up and ... trade away his road white as a show of friendship.
Taylor: NaVorro Bowman and Luke Kuechly. No disrespect to Patrick Willis, but Bowman and Kuechly have played all 16 regular season games and both earned first-team All-Pro honors this season. Willis is a seven-time Pro Bowler and any player on the Panthers would be pumped to receive his jersey, but for the sake of the argument, I’d go with Bowman and Kuechly. Both players are capable of making it a long day for their opposition. Bowman has been making a case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors after winning NFC Defensive Player of the Year in December. Kuechly is right behind Bowman in being considered. When it’s all said and done, win or lose, both players have been lightning rods for their respect teams and they respect each other’s ability. So why not trade the No. 53 for a No. 59?