It’s been two months since the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers have faced off and a lot has changed in that time.
Going into the first matchup, there were questions as to whether or not Carolina could win a close game. Of course, the Panthers won that game 10-9 and have since won nail biters against New England on Monday Night Football, at Miami, against the Saints, and at Atlanta, effectively silencing those critics.
Or have they?
Despite what Carolina has done over the second half of the season, going 11-1 in their last 12 games, there’s a similar feeling going into Sunday’s game. The Panthers, despite winning at San Francisco and returning home for this matchup, are viewed as the underdogs.
When asked about being the underdogs, RB Mike Tolbert’s face lit up with a sly grin, before flatly saying, “it’s disrespectful” that that’s the perception.
CB Captain Munnerlyn also brought up respect in an interview earlier this week, saying he wanted to play the 49ers, according to Panthers.com. When asked why, Munnerlyn fired back, “Because they don’t respect us. I feel like they don’t respect us at all.”
He later explained, “When we beat those guys the first time they were like, ‘We beat ourselves. Carolina didn’t do anything. We made mistakes.’”
Based on 49er QB Colin Kaepernick’s comments on a Wednesday conference call, Munnerlyn isn’t too far off. Kaepernick said of the first matchup, “I think it was more of what we did to ourselves. We didn’t execute the way we should have, and I didn’t play well.”
Kaepernick certainly didn’t play well, completing 11 of 22 passes for just 91 yards, his worst performance as a pro. A big role in that was the six sacks caused by the Panthers’ defense.
It was a game of smash mouth football and Carolina simply beat the 49ers at their own game at their place.
But as much as things have changed for the Panthers since that first matchup, things are quite different for San Francisco as well. WR Michael Crabtree missed that game with his still injured Achilles that kept him out until recently. Crabtree had 125 receiving yards alone last Sunday against Green Bay, 34 more than Kaepernick had throwing against Carolina all game! Not to mention TE Vernon Davis was knocked out early in the game and LB Aldon Smith, second in the NFL in sacks in 2012, played a limited role as he returned from suspension.
What does this mean?
The Panthers had a lot of success defensively in the first game by running a lot of zone coverages. This allowed defenders to not have to turn their backs covering receivers, leaving Colin Kaepernick very little running room. As a result, Kaepernick had one of his worst rushing performances of the season, only amassing 16 yards on 4 carries.
Now, with Crabtree and Davis presumably back for the whole game, it won’t be as easy to run zone coverages. Allowing Crabtree and Davis to roam free without having guys specifically covering them could lead to chunk yardage through the air. However, on the flip side, running more man coverage will potentially open more holes for Kaepernick to scramble, which could prove to be fatal as Green Bay has learned so many times.
But Carolina, unlike the Packers, has arguably the best defensive line in the NFL. If they’re going to beat San Francisco for a second time, it will be because the front four suffocates the running game and Colin Kaepernick, just like the first time. Considering Greg Hardy has 7 sacks in his last two games (yeah, you read that correctly) and the Panthers set a franchise record for sacks their last time out (9 against the Falcons), it’s certainly possible.
However, undeterred by all of that, most people, including some idiot columnist, are picking the 49ers to win on Sunday.
If this season has taught us anything, the Panthers are just fine with that.
Who wins this matchup? CLICK HERE to read the 5 bold predictions for Panthers and Niners.