These teams look very similar on paper and on the field, because for the most part, they are. Both have elite defenses, a young versatile quarterback, and a ground-and-pound offensive mentality. Last time they met up, Carolina bested San Francisco, 10-9 in a game where offense was hard to come by. To me, this is less of a knock against Newton and Kaepernick, and more of a testament to the defensive squads of each team – linebackers especially.
On the Panthers side of things, it’s Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly leading the charge. The two have combined for 179 tackles on the season and are not only making a difference up front, but also in the flats and other passing situations. They definitely gave Kaepernick some trouble the last time these guys met, sacking him six times and holding him to 91 passing yards.
The 49ers have an equally impressive defensive unit that is getting hot at the right time, due mostly in part to their linebackers – who in my opinion are the league’s best. The star-studded group consists of Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. Bowman and Willis are the heart of the defense, stuffing the few running holes that opposing offenses manage to open up at the line of scrimmage and covering a great deal of ground over the middle in the passing game as well. Brooks and Smith are great at rushing off the edge, combining for 17 sacks during the regular season.
While the linebackers draw most of the attention for both of these teams, their offensive and defensive lines are also big difference makers. In a league where passing and defending the pass are usually the focus, the 49ers and Panthers win their games the old fashioned way – by controlling the line of scrimmage, creating pressure on the quarterback, and running the ball effectively.
So what’s the difference between these teams?
Not much, in my eyes.
Carolina is playing in front of their home crowd, and there are injuries to consider, and that’s about it. I don’t trust Colin Kaepernick more than Cam Newton or vice-versa. Kaepernick has a touch more playoff experience than first-timer Newton, but neither has a playoff reputation to this point, and they both know how to play in big games (look at Newton’s college career and his most recent encounter with the Saints).
What I think this game will come down to is the performance of the quarterbacks. The difference will be which quarterback breaks out or falls on his face. If I had to a gun to my head and had to choose between Colin and Cam, I think I’d take Cam. Steve Smith’s return and Carlos Rogers’ absence also factors in to that choice.
Panthers win 24-14