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Top 10 Spotlight: 49ers vs. Panthers

Posted Jan 11, 2014

How does the 49ers passing attack change against the Panthers with Michael Crabtree in the lineup? Our Top 10 spotlight explains.

The 49ers have packed their bags and headed East for a second consecutive playoff appearance. This time, San Francisco faces the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Sunday’s postseason meeting is a Week 10 rematch, also remembered as a statement win for the NFC South-winning Panthers. Both teams have continued to play solid football since that November matchup.

Let’s look at the top 10 storylines for this upcoming game.

10. Will the Wooooooo's Matter?
Ric Flair spoke to the 49ers last week in Appleton, Wis. It didn’t sit well with the folks in Carolina, Steve Smith in particular, who said “The Golden Gate Bridge is burned” between the team and the wrestling icon and former Panthers season-ticket holder. Flair’s “heel” turn as a bad guy was a comical storyline earlier in the week, but will have no say in Sunday’s winner. Justin Smith had the 49ers reach out to the WWE for Flair to make a guest appearance last week. It seems like it’s a one-time deal. By all accounts, Flair is not speaking to the 49ers this week. Jim Harbaugh didn’t see any issue with the Flair appearance. “I think Ric Flair’s a fantastic guy. I had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with him, half hour, hour or so on Saturday,” the 49ers coach said. “And then of course he spoke to our team. He spoke very highly of Carolina and his friendships with the Carolina Panthers.” It's not a big deal. If the 49ers want to be the man they need to beat the man. End of story.

9. Stop Teddy
Old friend Ted Ginn Jr. hurt the 49ers the last time these teams played. It was mostly in the return game. Ginn set up Carolina’s go-ahead field goal with a 25-yard punt return. San Francisco doesn’t want to see the former Niner do that again this week. What is the special teams key this week? “Containing Teddy Ginn,” special teams ace Kassim Osgood said. Ginn, the seventh-year pro, was sixth in the NFL in punt return average (12.2 yards per return). San Francisco’s coverage units, on the other hand, have performed well in recent weeks. The challenge of limiting Ginn’s production in the return game will be significant, but if the 49ers get the best of the matchup, it can go a long way in influencing the game’s final outcome.
8. Week 10 Means Nothing
The Week 10 result is irrelevant. We heard it so many times this week. The Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 in Week 10, but that game is a thing of the past. Coordinators, players and even Harbaugh himself said it wouldn’t have an impact in this week’s contest. In Week 10, both teams combined for 401 total yards of offense. Sounds low, doesn’t it? Yes it was low and it was the lowest combined yards in a single game in the 2013 regular season. It was also just one of eight games that had only one touchdown scored. Many pundits are predicting a defensive struggle once again. However, it’s not a guarantee just because it was that way two months ago.

7. Brown Steps Up
You have to love the professionalism of 49ers seventh-year cornerback Tarell Brown. Sure, Perrish Cox deserves credit for stepping up last week as San Francisco’s No. 3 cornerback. Nobody is overlooking that. But Brown’s performance as the team's No. 2 cornerback has gone under the radar. Brown lost his starting job due to injury, but has quietly performed well in nickel situations. Last week in Green Bay, Brown filled in for injured Carlos Rogers as the starting cornerback opposite of Tramaine Brock. The 49ers are fortunate to have that kind of depth at cornerback. The defense didn’t skip a beat, holding Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to 177 passing yards. Brown, too, broke up a key deep ball to Jordy Nelson and was sound in coverage all afternoon. If Rogers is unable to play, Brown has a chance to play hero once again.

6. Aldon and Brooks
Cam Newton will experience the true 49ers pass rush this week. In the previous meeting, Aldon Smith was just coming back to the team following a five-game leave of absence. Pro Bowl linebacker Ahmad Brooks totaled 2 sacks in the loss, but he wasn’t joined by his fellow pass-rushing mate, Smith. Since that loss, both outside ‘backers have worked their way back as a formidable tandem. They even sandwiched Aaron Rodgers for a sack last week. Brooks (2 sacks) and Smith (1.5 sacks) rank 1 and 2 in the NFL postseason sack rankings. The 49ers have allowed 14.9 points per game since Week 4 and have limited deep passing plays with a strong rush up front. It’s also worth noting that the Panthers are only one of three NFL teams with only one passing performance over 275 yards in the regular season. With a healthy 49ers pass rush, Newton won’t have a ton of time to throw on Sunday.

5. Ice Up
Rogers is questionable for the 49ers. Steve Smith is too. Smith, the Panthers emotional receiver, is the heart and soul of their team. He’s their “LeBron James,” according to Ginn. So while the veteran receiver continues to recover from a knee injury, the focus of Carolina’s passing game likely shifts to Ginn and Brandon LaFell. For the 49ers, Rogers needed to practice this week to play. That’s what defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. Rogers did not practice, but anything is possible. This is the playoffs. If Rogers wakes up Sunday morning and feels like he can go 60 minutes, he’ll dress out.
4. Gore vs. Williams
They’re very similar, Frank Gore and DeAngelo Williams. They’re both very vital to their team’s success.  Gore was ninth in the regular season with 1,128 rushing yards; Williams was 18th with 843 rushing yards. The Panthers lead runner, however, shared his duties with Jonathan Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert. Williams still found the end zone against the 49ers. It was the only touchdown of that game. Both lead running backs will be essential for their respective teams. If either team can establish the run early, the play-action passing game will open up for their third-year quarterbacks. Gore’s success on the ground is paramount to the 49ers. But if Gore’s not getting the ball consistently on first and second-downs, he’s still able to impact the game with a key blitz pickup and open-field bocks. Gore can makes plays in a variety of areas and does the job that three backs can do for the Panthers.

3. Vernon vs. Carolina
The playoffs are made for Vernon Davis. The eighth-year pro simply produces in the postseason. He did it again last week with a 28-yard touchdown catch against the Packers. Will Davis score again? There’s a good chance he’ll be targeted in the red zone. Davis will also be more of an option than the previous meeting with Carolina. San Francisco's tight end was knocked out early with a concussion and was a non-factor in the game. The 49ers sorely could have used one of the team’s elite weapons. They won’t have that problem come Sunday.

2. Kaepernick in January
Just like his tight end, Colin Kaepernick shines in the month of January. The 49ers quarterback continued his Packer-killing legacy last week and enters Sunday’s matchup in Carolina as San Francisco’s all-time leader in playoff road wins for a starting quarterback. Kaepernick was held to a season-low 91 passing yards against the Panthers in the previous meeting. And there’s no doubt he’ll face a challenge from a defense that recorded 60 sacks, the most in the NFL in 2013. But there’s no denying that Kaepernick is always confident on a football field. He brings it, especially in the playoffs where he’s 3-1 all-time. Kaepernick’s longest completion against Carolina was an 11-yard pass the last time these teams played. It figures to be different with the help of a certain fifth-year wideout.
1. Crabtree Catches Everything
Michael Crabtree, too, shines bright on the big stage. The leading receiver in 2012 is back with a vengeance on San Francisco’s Super Bowl quest. Crabtree caught eight passes for 125 yards last week. Six of those catches went for first downs. With the physical, play-making wideout back in the fold, Anquan Boldin will see single coverage on the other end of the field. Throw in Davis in the middle of the field and the 49ers passing attack will look totally different this Sunday. Harbaugh said he's put his life in Crabtree's hands. On Sunday, San Francisco's chances of advancing in the playoffs will be in Crabtree's hands, too.

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They’re very similar, Frank Gore and DeAngelo Williams. They’re both very vital to their team’s success.  Gore was ninth in the regular season with 1,128 rushing yards; Williams was 18th with 843 rushing yards. The Panthers lead runner, however, shared his duties with Jonathan Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert. Williams still found the end zone against the 49ers. It was the only touchdown of that game. Both lead running backs will be essential for their respective teams. If either team can establish the run early, the play-action passing game will open up for their third-year quarterbacks. Gore’s success on the ground is paramount to the 49ers. But if Gore’s not getting the ball consistently on first and second-downs, he’s still able to impact the game with a key blitz pickup and open-field bock. Gore can impact the game in any area and does the job that three backs can do for the Panthers.