Carolina Panthers: Michael Crabtree


Perhaps no two teams in the NFC are more alike than the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, who meet at 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium for the right to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

They both have big, physical, mobile quarterbacks.

They both have offenses built around the running game.

They both rely on physical, highly ranked defenses built around stopping the run first.

Their regular-season meeting at Candlestick Park showed just how close they are. Carolina won 10-9 on Nov. 10 in one of the more physical games of the season.

The rematch has all the ingredients to be just as close and physical.

ESPN.com Panthers reporters David Newton and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson are here to break it down.

Newton: Bill, hope you have thawed out from the trip to Green Bay. The first game between these teams was an old-fashioned NFC bruiser. Do you see the rematch being anything different?

Williamson: You're right, David, the first 49ers-Panthers matchup was one of the most physical games of the 2013 NFL season. I think we are going to see a similar game. These teams are similar, and are both really good teams. So this is going to be another close, physical game.

I do think more points will be scored. A huge difference for the 49ers is they will have receiver Michael Crabtree this time, and you have to assume tight end Vernon Davis won't leave this game early, as he did in the Nov. 10 meeting. Crabtree has made this a different team since he returned Dec. 1 from a torn Achilles. He had his best game of the season last week at Green Bay with eight catches for 125 yards. David, do you think the Panthers are prepared to deal with Crabtree?

Newton: They better be, or it could be a long day. I suspect they will take a similar approach to their Dec. 22 victory over New Orleans, which has talented receivers and Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. And remember, Crabtree was facing a Green Bay defense that was ranked 24th against the pass and 25th overall. Carolina's defense ranks sixth against the pass and second overall. That's a significant difference.

To me it doesn't come down to Crabtree as much as it does to the pass rush. Carolina led the league in sacks with 60 and has 15 in the past two games. The Panthers will try to push quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of his comfort zone like they did in the first meeting, when they sacked him six times. The secondary is a huge part of that. They mix things up with complicated zone coverages that make it difficult for receivers. They also are physical with them. To stand a chance, the Panthers have to duplicate the kind of effort they had in the first game. If they pressure Kaepernick that way again, Crabtree won't be as effective.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the 49ers did a nice job on Cam Newton in the first game. This will be Newton's first playoff game. Are the 49ers worried about him?

Williamson: The 49ers certainly respect Newton and are wary of him. But I don't think they are overly fretting about him. The 49ers just beat Aaron Rodgers. He's the best quarterback in the NFL. So they can handle Newton.

I think what gives the 49ers confidence that they can continue to have success against Newton is that their defense is so athletic. So it matches up well against Newton. He did come up with some big third-down passes against the 49ers. So San Francisco has to find a way to keep him from making clutch plays. That means the 49ers have to keep pressure on him throughout the down. If Newton athletically beats the 49ers, they will have a tough day.

David, my last question for you is: What do you think the Panthers can do overall to ensure they move on to the NFC title game?

Newton: Bill, because I see the defense doing its part, for me it all comes down to Newton. As left tackle Jordan Gross said this season, as Newton goes, so go the Panthers. This will be his biggest challenge on his biggest stage, but he's a lot more confident now than he was the first time these teams met. He has since engineered last-minute, game-winning drives to beat New England, Miami and New Orleans. I believe you'll see him throw caution to the wind when it comes to running. Having favorite receiver Steve Smith back will help as well. If Newton can handle the big-game atmosphere as he did in college, the Panthers have a chance. Having said that, what do the 49ers have to do?

Williamson: San Francisco has to take advantage of what it has now, but didn't have when it last played Carolina -- and that’s better offensive weapons. Crabtree has been back for six weeks, and the offense is much better. Having a healthy Davis makes the 49ers better in this game, as well. But they can't spoil those advantages. San Francisco must find the end zone a couple of times. The 49ers had just three field goals against the Panthers in November, and settling for field goals has been an issue all season.

Because points are going to be at such a premium, the 49ers have to do what it takes to find the end zone, at least two times in this game. If not, another close loss to Carolina might be on the horizon.

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