49ers’ fate against Panthers rests with Kaepernick

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San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
Sunday, Jan. 12, 10:05 a.m. PT

Key Matchup

One of the main reasons why the San Francisco 49ers are still playing football is Colin Kaepernick’s legs. His ability to escape pressure and turn broken plays into big gains all but saved the day last Sunday in Green Bay, as Kaepernick converted a crucial third-and-eight with an 11-yard scramble around the left end on the 49ers’ final drive.

Kaepernick also knifed up the middle for a 42-yard gain, part of his 98 rushing yards on the day. In two playoff games against the Packers, Kaepernick has been an absolute game-changer as a runner. Sunday he’ll face a much tougher defense featuring the man who will be assigned to shadow him most of the game, Panthers inside linebacker Luke Kuechly.

While most of Kaepernick’s rushing attempts are predicated on defensive ends losing contain, his ability to reach the third level starts and stops at the linebackers. Against the All-Pro Kuechly, who tied for the league’s 10th-most tackles (93) during the regular season, Kaepernick’s skills as a runner will be put to the test.

Kaepernick managed only 16 rushing yards in the 49ers’ Week 10 loss to the Panthers, but that when San Francisco’s offense was at its most one-dimensional; Michael Crabtree had yet to return, and Vernon Davis missed the second half because of a concussion. That allowed the Panthers to sit back in man-to-man coverage, load up against the run.

With Crabtree and Davis back Sunday, Kaepernick and Kuechly will square off on an even playing field.

The 49ers Win If …

They can throw the ball efficiently and make the Panthers beat them through the air. Carolina boasts the No. 2 rushing defense, so it’s safe to say San Francisco won’t be able to win with just Frank Gore. The 49ers rushed for only 105 yards last time against the Panthers and threw for a mere 46. With their receiving corps now intact, the 49ers can be balanced Sunday and use the pass to set up the run. It only works if they can throw the ball, which will be no easy task against the sixth-best passing defense.

On the defensive side, the 49ers had the right game plan in Week 10. They held the Panthers to 109 rushing yards, and Cam Newton and Co. to 141 passing yards. Carolina scored 10 points, with six of those coming off a missed tackle by Tarrell Brown on DeAngelo Williams’ 27-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The 49ers took away the run and challenged Newton to beat them with his arm.

While that doesn’t sound like the safest plan, keep in mind the 49ers secondary should be fully capable of staying with the Panthers receivers, especially with Steve Smith at less than 100 percent. Carolina’s leading receiver, tight end Greg Olsen, had one catch for 14 yards in Week 10.

The 49ers Lose If …

Their receivers can’t get separation. That means more Carolina defenders in the box and another frustrating day offensively for San Francisco. Carolina’s defense is that good. The Panthers were able to pressure Kaepernick without blitzing last time. It’s on him and his receivers to flip the script and put pressure on the Panthers by making them respect the pass and drop more defenders into coverage.

What’s At Stake

A trip to Seattle and the NFC Championship game. Even at home, the Seahawks looked vulnerable while beating the Saints 23-15 on Saturday. Seattle was held to seven points in the second half, but its defense delivered once again. The winner of Sunday’s game stands a fair chance of upsetting the Seahawks and advancing to XLVIII.

Oddsmakers

Line: 49ers -1 O/U: 42 Moneyline: San Francisco -135 | Carolina +115


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