NFC West: Carolina Panthers

Inactives for Panthers and Seahawks

January, 10, 2015
Jan 10
SEATTLE -- The following are the inactive players for the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks in Saturday night's NFC divisional round playoff game:

Panthers: DT Star Lotulelei, CB James Dockery, S Robert Lester, LB A.J. Klein, OT David Foucault, G Amini Silatolu, DE Frank Alexander.

Seahawks: S Jeron Johnson, TE Tony Moeaki, DT Landon Cohen, C Lemuel Jeanpierre, CB Marcus Burley, TE Keavon Milton, WR Kevin Norwood.

When: 8:15 p.m. ET Saturday Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle TV: Fox

The Seattle Seahawks have been where the Carolina Panthers are today.

It was four years ago when the Seahawks became the first NFL team to win their division with a losing record (7-9) before a dramatic playoff victory at home against the defending Super Bowl champions in the New Orleans Saints.

The Panthers went 7-8-1 and are the second team to win their division with a losing record. They're coming off a big playoff victory at home, but now they face the defending Super Bowl champs on the road Saturday at CenturyLink Field.

Seattle lost its second playoff game four years ago on the road at Chicago. The Panthers hope to fare better, but they will have to win at a place where they've never won against a team that has beaten them in each of the past three seasons.

ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down this NFC divisional-round game:

Blount: Dave, both these teams had big runs down the stretch. The Seahawks won their last six games, and the Panthers have won five in a row after it appeared their playoff hopes were over at 3-8-1. What changed for Carolina to get things headed in the right direction?

Newton: Two things. I'll start with the defense. The unit Seattle faced Oct. 26 has three new starters in the secondary. The speed and cover ability of second-year cornerback Josh Norman, as well as rookie cornerback Bene' Benwikere and safety Tre Boston, have taken the defense to another level. Since Benwikere and Boston became starters, the Panthers have gone 5-0 and allowed only 59 points. The other change is the offensive line. That group was in the midst of a streak of seven different lineups when Carolina lost to Seattle in Charlotte. The same five have now started six straight games. The running game is averaging close to 200 yards during that span, taking the heat off quarterback Cam Newton. Jonathan Stewart is running like the "Beast" Marshawn Lynch is in Seattle, averaging 101.5 yards the past six games. Getting healthy has played a big role for Carolina, but the infusion of young players playing at a high level is the biggest change.

Terry, the Seahawks seemed to be plodding along at midseason, and some were wondering if they would fall into the long line of Super Bowl champions to miss the playoffs the next season. What turned things around?

Blount: So many things it's hard to list them all, but I'll hit the highlights. First, Bobby Wagner's return after missing five games was a huge spark to the defense. The Seahawks' D has been lights out since his return, allowing only 39 points in the past six games. It says a lot that Wagner earned his first All-Pro selection even though he missed five games. Strong safety Kam Chancellor got healthy again and went back to his Bamm-Bamm bashing ways. But the biggest factor was trading Percy Harvin. The offense got back to its power-running, zone-read ways after he left, and the team eliminated a malcontent in the locker room who just didn't fit in.

This game will showcase who most people see as the two best middle linebackers in the game, Luke Kuechly and Seattle's Wagner. One thing that sets Wagner apart is his speed for a man who is 240 pounds. He gets to the edge as quickly as any inside linebacker I've ever seen. I know you asked some players about it this week, but what do you see as the assets that set Kuechly apart from other linebackers?

Newton: It's his preparation. He spends more time studying opponents than most coaches. You'll see more of that in a profile I'm writing. But you mix his preparation with his instincts and athletic ability and -- no offense to Wagner -- there isn't a better middle linebacker in the game. Not only is Kuechly a great tackler, leading the NFL with 153, he is great in coverage. He had an interception in the red zone late against Arizona on Saturday when the game remained too close to call, then he forced another by tipping a pass close to the goal line. Tight end Greg Olsen, who used to play in Chicago, has said Kuechly already is on the level of Brian Urlacher when he was at his best. That says it all.

Seattle has held Newton to one touchdown in three games since 2012. What has been the key to that?

Blount: Newton shouldn't feel too bad. The Seahawks have made a lot of very good QBs look bad the past couple of years -- Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl and Aaron Rodgers this year in the season opener, to name two. But the biggest thing is they've done what I'm sure the Panthers want to do to Russell Wilson -- cut off his running lanes and force Newton to beat them throwing. Newton had 12 carries for only 24 yards in the game at Charlotte earlier this season. Forcing any QB to beat them just by passing is a chore against the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL, which has three Pro Bowlers in Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.

Dave, most of the Panthers are playing at CenturyLink Field for the first time, including Newton, Kuechly and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. I know they've all heard about the noise in the stadium, but it can be a shocker the first time visiting players experience it. How do you think they will handle it?

Newton: They've faced some pretty loud crowds in the Louisiana Superdome the past couple of years, and they have some veterans such as Thomas Davis and Roman Harper who have played at Seattle. Harper was on the field when Lynch's 2010 "Beast Mode" run registered seismic activity. I can't say the noise won't be a factor, because it will be. The key for Carolina will be a fast start. If the Panthers can establish the run early, as they have during this five-game win streak, and score early, it tends to quiet the crowd. Plus the Panthers are using more no-huddle now, so there are more hand signals anyway. That the offensive line, as I mentioned above, has developed some continuity also should help silent communication. But you're right, it could be a shocker to the rookies, and the Panthers have two on the line at guard and Benjamin at wide receiver.

The Panthers have done a good job of shutting down Lynch the past three times they've met. Is that a concern, particularly in the playoffs where Seattle will need the running game to keep the pressure off Wilson?

Blount: It could be, but Lynch has been a monster in home playoff games. Everyone knows about the Beast Quake run, but Lynch also rushed for 140 yards in the Saints playoff game last year and 109 yards in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers. One thing that will help Lynch this weekend is the likely return of starting center Max Unger. He didn't play at Charlotte in October and has missed the past six games. But Unger is a road-grader as a run-blocker who usually opens some big lanes for Lynch.

When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET. Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: ESPN

Two teams whose seasons are going in opposite directions collide in Saturday’s NFC wild-card game at Bank of America Stadium.

The Arizona Cardinals (11-5) started the season 9-1, but they’ve lost two straight and four of their last six since their quarterback situation became decimated by injuries.

The Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) went seven straight games without a victory before winning their final four to capture the NFC South title for the second straight season with a 34-3 victory at Atlanta in the regular-season finale.

NFL Nation Cardinals reporter Joshua Weinfuss and Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break down this 4:35 p.m. matchup.

Newton: Josh, I’m sure you get hit with the same question every week recently, but how much of a mess is the quarterback situation at Arizona?

Weinfuss: It’s definitely a mess, there’s no doubt about that. But after last weekend’s loss, it doesn’t look to be as big of a catastrophe as once believed. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, Drew Stanton starts against Carolina. If he does, that would put him at 23 days between games. With the Cardinals playing to survive and advance, I’m not sure it’s the wisest decision to play him. If you would’ve asked me that question before Week 17, my response would’ve been different. But after watching Ryan Lindley play as well as he did, despite making a few costly mistakes, I think he’s more capable of playing on this level. The biggest difference Sunday was how the offense was tailored down and the Cardinals slowed the game down. It worked. He didn’t lose that game, that’s for certain. But last week, the quarterback situation was definitely a sideshow with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians declaring Logan Thomas the starter, then saying he was playing at least a half, then backtracking on that, and then finally naming Lindley the starter. This week -- thus far at least -- seems a bit calmer.

David, there’s really no other way to put this besides: What’s gotten into the Panthers the last four weeks?

Newton: It’s twofold. First, everybody got healthy. The offensive line had been a mess due to injuries and inexperience. But the same five have started five games in a row, developing a continuity and consistency that wasn’t there much of the season. That has allowed quarterback Cam Newton to do his thing as a runner and a passer. The fact that Jonathan Stewart has been one of the most productive runners in the NFL during that stretch has given that unit balance. Then there’s the defense. The Panthers have been playing at a top-10 level the past nine games. But inserting more speed in the secondary with rookie cornerback Bene' Benwikere and rookie free safety Tre Boston has elevated that group to the level it was last season, when it was second in the NFL. The emergence of Josh Norman as a shutdown corner also has been key. The Panthers basically are using the same formula that worked last season: Pressure the quarterback, stop the run and create turnovers.

The Arizona defense has been stout at limiting points allowed this season. What has been the key, and is that group playing well enough to make the Cardinals a contender despite the quarterback issues?

Weinfuss: The key was -- emphasis on was -- how well Arizona stopped the run this season and how many turnovers it was creating. Arizona’s turnover margin was plus-11 as the Cardinals ran out to a 9-1 record. It has been minus-three in the six games since. Is it a coincidence that Arizona’s defense began allowing 100-yard rushing games -- five in their last six -- right when it started losing? No. I think it’s a direct reason why the Cardinals dropped four of their final six games. Through the first 10 games, the defense was playing well enough to make Arizona a contender regardless of who was at QB. Now? Not the case anymore.

The Panthers seem to be peaking at the right time, especially with their running game. How much can Cam Newton take credit for the running game taking that next step, and how effective can it be against a Cardinals defense that allowed more than 200 yards in its last two games?

Newton: The threat of Newton as a runner certainly helps. But it’s way more than that. As I mentioned above, Stewart is running better than at any point in his career now that he’s completely healthy. And the line that was criticized for much of the season is winning the battle in the trenches. It starts with the inside group. Center Ryan Kalil has been steady all season, but the emergence of left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Trai Turner has solidified that group, which was constantly making mistakes early in the season. Then there’s right tackle Mike Remmers, who was on the Rams' practice squad the first half of the season. He’s played so well that he’s earned a right to start next season. That Newton is making smart decisions on the read-option makes it tough for teams to load up against the run as it did earlier in the season. The Panthers are averaging about 195 yards rushing the last five games, so this appears to be strength against weakness.

The Cardinals lost twice to a Seattle team that relies on a running quarterback. Russell Wilson had 88 yards on six carries in the second loss. What is Arizona doing to adjust to facing another running quarterback in Newton? And is stopping him the primary concern there?

Weinfuss: You can’t forget what Colin Kaepernick just did to them on Sunday, running for 63 yards. The Cardinals are focusing on staying gap-sound and true to their assignments this week, which is what hurt them most against those two quarterbacks -- that and missed tackles. The Cardinals have 27 missed tackles in the last two games, according to Pro Football Focus. If they can’t wrap up Newton, then he’s going to be running wild all over the field. Even with how tough the Panthers’ running game is, and how much of a threat tight end Greg Olsen can become, I think stopping Newton is Arizona’s top priority and concern. Once he begins running, the Cardinals’ defense will be susceptible to an entirely different set of plays that’ll put a lot of pressure on Arizona’s front seven.

The Carolina defense has 14 of its 40 sacks and nine of its 26 turnovers in the last four games. Can they carry that momentum into the playoffs, and how important is it for them to have a home game?

Newton: There’s no reason to think they can’t, particularly facing a quarterback in his first playoff game. They’re flying around and playing at a level that is every bit as good as last year’s defense, which carried the team. That the sacks finally are starting to come has been key. The pressure has made good quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Matt Ryan look average. Defensive end Charles Johnson is playing at arguably his highest level of his career. The front four is getting such a big push that it disrupts what the opponent wants to do without having to commit other players to a blitz. Then there’s Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, arguably the best pair of linebackers in the NFL. The front seven that was promoted as one of the best in the league before the season finally is playing as advertised. They’ve found a personnel grouping that really works, and they’re having fun again. They’re peaking at the right time.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Which quarterback will the Carolina Panthers face in the first round of the playoffs?

Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Ryan Lindley will take all of the first-team snaps in practice on Tuesday as though he will start. He also said a final decision likely won’t come until Friday to see how far Drew Stanton has progressed from his knee injury.

The Panthers (7-8-1) aren’t focused on the who.

“We’re preparing for what they do and how they do it more so than anything else,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “Something I learned from being around [former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator] Buddy Ryan. You prepare for what they do as much as who they play.

“You have respect for the players on their team, their abilities, but you also have to look at what they do and how they do it.’’

The Panthers have been one of the more effective defenses in the NFL the past four games, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 22.1 rating. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only two teams have held quarterbacks to a worse rating.

It begins with pressure. The Panthers sacked Atlanta’s Matt Ryan six times in Sunday’s 34-3 victory that secured the NFC South title for the second straight year and a home playoff game.

Ryan finished with a quarterback rating of 15.3.

Lindley has a quarterback rating of 37.8 this season. That ranks 36th out of 45 players with at least 100 action plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Again, the Panthers aren’t focused on the who.

“We’ve got to prepare for the play-action, we’ve got to prepare for the dropback,’’ Rivera said. “We’ll split our team trying to figure those things out and what they do offensively.’’

Quick Take: Panthers vs. Cardinals

December, 28, 2014
» Wild-Card Round: Schedule » AFC: BAL-PIT | CIN-IND » NFC: DET-DAL | ARI-CAR

Three things to know about the Carolina Panthers' matchup against the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card playoff game at Bank of America Stadium (4:35 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN):

1. Hot team: The Cardinals were one of the hottest teams through the first three-quarters of the season until being hit hard with injuries at quarterback. They enter the playoffs with four losses in their final six games. The Panthers finished as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning their final four games. If you're a believer in momentum, the Panthers have the edge. They also have an edge in this series with an 8-5 advantage, although the Cardinals have won the past two, including a 22-6 victory in Arizona last season.

2. Stability at quarterback: Carolina's Cam Newton, as much as he has been through this season in terms of injuries and inconsistency, finished on a strong note. His ability to keep defenses honest with his ability to run and pass, along with stability on the offensive line with the same starting five over the final five games, have made Carolina dangerous. Arizona simply has been a mess at quarterback since Carson Palmer was lost for the season in Week 10 and backup Drew Stanton suffered a knee injury in Week 15. Ryan Lindley started the Cardinals' final two games, both losses.

3. Defensive showdown: This will pit two of the better defenses in the NFL. The Cardinals have been stout all season, ranking fourth in points allowed heading into the regular-season finale. The Panthers have come on strong since moving on and accepting that defensive end Greg Hardy was not returning from the commissioner's exempt list. They have been a top-10 unit over the final nine games, stabilizing the secondary with a complete overhaul that included two rookies -- cornerback Bené Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston -- becoming starters.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As if Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hasn’t had enough problems between offseason ankle surgery, a preseason rib injury and an injury-plagued offensive line that has left him with a bulls eye on his No. 1 jersey, on Tuesday his Twitter account was hacked.

The Panthers, as you can see from the following tweet, were made aware of this.

Well, at least the Panthers thought they had the hacker under control. At around 5:25 p.m. this person was back at it, writing under Newton’s name that he wants to go to a good team, putting a smiley face at the end of the tweet. That tweet was quickly deleted, as were the earlier tweets. But there were some really interesting -- and entertaining -- tweets floating around before the Panthers became wise to the hack.

The one that clinched this really wasn’t Newton came at 3:30 p.m. when the Tweet read: @RSherman_25 overrated.

Newton wasn’t thrilled when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman beat him out for the Madden NFL 15 cover, but he’s not the type to take to public retaliation.

The hacker also tweeted under @CamNewton that “My fantasy team sucks smh"

There also were a few funny replies, such as the person that wrote Newton’s twitter password is easier to break through than his offensive line.

Yes, it’s been a tough season for the first pick of the 2011 draft. He was made fun of during the “C’mon Man!" segment of ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast for saying “Hindsight is 50-50" -- again -- after Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta.

Newton also made a bad fashion statement earlier this season with the Capri pants.

Having his Twitter account hacked was like piling on.

At 4:39, Newton responded with this Tweet:

Practice actually ended at around 11:30 a.m., but when you’ve had the kind of year Newton is having we’ll give him a break on that.

Seahawks vs. Panthers preview

October, 23, 2014

The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are reeling as they enter Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game at Bank of America Stadium.

The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have lost two straight games to fall to 3-3, two games behind Arizona in the NFC West. The defending NFC South champion Panthers have gone 1-2-1 over their past four games and fallen to 3-3-1. They still lead the division because the other three teams have defenses that are just as porous as Carolina's.

Seattle and Carolina are meeting for the third straight year in Charlotte, with the Seahawks winning the previous two by scores of 16-12 and 12-7.

ESPN Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down for you:

Newton: Terry, the folks in Seattle have to be a bit shocked the Seahawks are .500 and two games out in the division. Is there a sense of concern at this point?

Blount: Nobody is jumping off the Space Needle, but you'd better believe the fans are concerned and a bit bewildered. There is time for the Seahawks to recover, but can they? The team hasn't played well at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. They can't get much of a pass rush, and the offensive line has been whistled for 14 penalties in the past three games. Injuries to key starters have hurt them: tight end Zach Miller, center Max Unger, cornerback Byron Maxwell and especially middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who was playing the best football of his career until suffering a nasty turf toe injury two weeks ago.

You're probably getting this question a lot, but what in heaven's name is going on with the Carolina defense? The Panthers have gone from No. 2 in the NFL last season in points allowed (15.1) to a team that has given up at least 37 points in four games this season. What has been the biggest factor in the dramatic change?

Newton: Not sure the editors will give me the space to fully explain this one. You can start with the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. It's hard to replace everything he did. But it goes much deeper than that. You can also look to the secondary. There are three new starters: strong safety Roman Harper, free safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Antoine Cason. They're making every quarterback look like Peyton Manning the way receivers are running free. The lack of a pass rush has hurt. Teams are hitting Carolina with a lot of quick passes to negate the four-man rush, just as I suspect is happening in Seattle. But, as linebacker Thomas Davis said earlier in the week, the Carolina defense as a whole simply isn't playing smart and swarming to the ball as it did last season.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is playing at high level. Where has he shown the most improvement and how will his threat as a runner affect an undisciplined Carolina defense?

Blount: Dave, it's scary to think where the team would be without Wilson. He single-handedly won the Redskins game on Oct. 6, becoming the first quarterback in "Monday Night Football" history to pass for more than 200 yards and run for more than 100. His brilliant 80-yard drive in overtime defeated Denver last month, a game the defense tried to give away at the end of regulation. He's doing almost everything at a higher level now in his third NFL season, but most importantly, he understands where he needs to go with the football more quickly and when to tuck and run. That has been essential considering Wilson had been under duress more than any other QB. Believe it or not, he rarely looks to run. He has to run to avoid pressure. The key for any defense is trying to cut off the perimeter and keep him in the pocket -- easier said than done.

Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin looks as if he's everything the Panthers hoped he would be as a first-round pick. But do they miss Steve Smith, and do you think Benjamin can be as good as, or better than, Buffalo rookie receiver Sammy Watkins?

Newton: Benjamin hasn't disappointed. He's 13th in the NFL in receiving yards with 477, and his five touchdowns are one more than Smith has in Baltimore. I'm not sure Benjamin would have developed as quickly if Smith were in Carolina. As I've said before, overall the team is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago.

As for where Benjamin stacks up against Watkins, I'd say they're pretty much the same player except Watkins has more explosive speed. But Benjamin runs routes much better than anyone gave him credit for coming out of college. He's a player even Seattle's talented secondary will have to pay extra attention to. And you do that at the expense of leaving open Greg Olsen, who leads all tight ends with 493 receiving yards.

I found the comments by Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin on the Percy Harvin trade interesting. Has that been a distraction, and how will that affect the Seattle offense?

Blount: Baldwin admitted after the St. Louis loss this past weekend that the shock of the Harvin trade, which happened less than 48 hours earlier, had an impact on the way the Seahawks started the game in getting behind 21-3. However, I firmly believe the impact going forward will be a positive one. Harvin's anger issues -- fights with teammates and taking himself out of two games -- were more than anyone could tolerate any longer.

It also was a problem on the field because Seattle revamped its entire offense to revolve around Harvin. The Seahawks got away from what they do best: run the football to set up open receivers downfield. They looked like last year's offense in the second half against the Rams, scoring on three consecutive drives of 80 yards or longer. Wilson set another NFL record, becoming the first player in league history to pass for more than 300 yards and rush for more than 100 in a game. Baldwin had his best game of the season with seven catches for 123 yards and a score. Trading Harvin was addition by subtraction in so many ways.

I'm shocked to see that Cam Newton is Carolina's leading rusher with 190 yards. What has happened to the Panthers' running game?

Newton: You wouldn't be shocked if you looked at all the injuries, a new line and opponents putting eight in the box to stop the run. Panthers all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and has played less than six quarters this season. Jonathan Stewart has missed three starts. Mike Tolbert is on injured reserve. If you've heard the names Darrin Reaves, Fozzy Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya, you're either related to them or desperate in a fantasy league.

Then there's the line, which took another blow last week when starting right guard Trai Turner suffered a knee and ankle sprain that will keep him out this week. At one point Sunday, undrafted rookie David Foucault, who should be on the practice squad developing, was playing left tackle. I could go on, but I won't.

Upon Further Review: 49ers-Panthers

January, 12, 2014
PM ET NFL Nation reporters Bill Williamson and David Newton discuss the 49ers’ 23-10 win over the Panthers in an NFC divisional playoff game.

Live blog: 49ers at Panthers

January, 12, 2014
Join our NFL experts for playoff football between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1:05 p.m. ET. See you there.

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. 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.


Quick Take: 49ers at Panthers

January, 5, 2014
Three things to know about the San Francisco 49ers' matchup at the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round at 1:05 p.m. ET Sunday:

1. Rematch: All Colin Kaepernick said about the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night, after the 49ers secured their trip there with a 23-20 win at Green Bay was “we owe them.” The Panthers beat the 49ers in San Francisco, 10-9, on Nov. 10. It was one of the NFL’s most physical games of the season. Both offenses struggled as both teams played brilliant defense. Expect another low-scoring game, although the point total likely will exceed 19 this time around.

2. Young quarterback battle: This will be a terrific national spotlight game for two of the better young quarterbacks in the league, Kaepernick and Carolina's Cam Newton. One of these two quarterbacks is heading to the NFC Championship Game. Newton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Kaepernick, who already has been to one Super Bowl, was taken in the second round.

3. Great linebacking play: The first meeting was highlighted by stellar defensive play, particularly by the inside linebackers. San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly are among the game’s best middle linebackers. Bowman and Kuechly are legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Expect this matchup to be run through these guys once again.
Colin Kaepernick and Cam NewtonGetty Images, AP PhotoQuarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, left, and Cam Newton highlight a matchup of NFC playoff contenders.
SAN FRANCISCO -- A few weeks ago, this didn’t appear to be a premier game.

But the Carolina Panthers kept on winning. Now, before the San Francisco 49ers have to tangle with potential playoff opponents New Orleans and Seattle in the coming weeks, looms another major NFC test in the form of the Panthers on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

This will be matchup featuring two of the hottest teams in the league. The 49ers have won five straight, the Panthers four straight. 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Panthers reporter David Newton take a look at the intriguing matchup:

Newton: These teams appear similar, built around a strong running game, a versatile quarterback and strong defense. Where do you believe the 49ers have the biggest advantage?

Williamson: They totally believe in what they do. This is a confident team in all phases of the game. San Francisco is deep and focused, and it rarely misfires as a team. The 49ers stick to their plan and have confidence it will eventually wear opponents down. That is particularly true concerning the ground game on both sides of the ball. The 49ers know they are better than most opponents, and they just go out and try to prove it. I think they will try to stuff the Panthers early and get in their heads. David, the Panthers are certainly clicking themselves. Do you think they are up to this task?

Newton: Because their five wins came against teams with a combined 8-33 record, the critics are wary. So, the Panthers are relishing the opportunity to prove that their winning streak isn't a fluke, that they deserve to be mentioned as a serious contender. The only team they have faced with a record currently above .500 is Seattle, which beat Carolina 12-7 in the season opener. The Panthers believe they should have won that game, too. Like San Francisco, this group is very confident. The Panthers have an attitude and hunger that, with a decent amount of talent, make them dangerous. They won't be intimidated by San Francisco's résumé, particularly Carolina's defense, which is playing as well as any in the league. Just ask the Seahawks, who struggled to score 12 on Carolina, then scored 29 against the 49ers in Week 2. This is a playoff-caliber defense that should keep the Panthers in most games. Their biggest challenge will be stopping Colin Kaepernick. He appears to have picked up where he left off last season. How has he improved?

Williamson: He’s a perfect fit for this coaching staff. What coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman excel at is taking what opposing defenses give them. They will run inside or outside, will use Kaepernick on the ground or through the air and can exploit defenses using receiver Anquan Boldin or tight end Vernon Davis, depending on what is given to them. Kaepernick plays along perfectly. He is patient and doesn’t care about his own stats. He happily executes the game plan. David, do you think Panthers have a chance of frustrating Kaepernick by closing all those gaps?

Newton: That's the game plan, whether it's a running quarterback such as Kaepernick or a pocket passer. The goal is to stuff the run and make a team one-dimensional, and they've done that well enough to rank second in the league against the run. But running quarterbacks are a concern. Seattle's Russell Wilson didn't put up huge numbers in the opener, but he kept the chains moving and completed a high percentage of throws (76 percent, 25 of 33). Buffalo's EJ Manuel did the same thing. Carolina had a combined three sacks in those games. The Panthers have averaged more than three a game since. What will the 49ers do to counter the play of Cam Newton?

Williamson: The 49ers respect Newton. They have been talking about how physical Newton is and how they must respect his game. Again, the defense in San Francisco starts with stopping the run. Then, the 49ers tee off on the passing game. This has been a very stingy defense, but Newton is on a roll and will be the best quarterback this San Francisco defense has seen since Andrew Luck beat it at home in Week 3. David, do you see Newton succeeding in this game?

Newton: Most of Newton's success this season has come against defenses ranked in the lower half of the league. Most of it has come because he has gotten comfortable taking what the other team gives him, mostly short stuff, so he's been completing a high percentage of passes the past month. San Francisco has one of the best pass defenses in the league, so I look for Newton to use his legs more early to get into a rhythm, and I look for the Panthers to try to run to take the pressure off Newton. His confidence is at an all-time high, but the 49ers have a defense that can change that quickly.


Live blog: Rams at Panthers

October, 20, 2013
Join our NFL experts as they break down the St. Louis Rams' visit to the Carolina Panthers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Sam Bradford and Cam NewtonUSA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Sam Bradford and Cam Newton led their teams to victory last week.
The Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams put on an offensive showcase in a 2003 NFC divisional playoff game at the Edwards Jones Dome. The Rams overcame an 11-point deficit in the final 2:39 of regulation and the Panthers ended the 29-23 double-overtime thriller with a 69-yard touchdown catch by Steve Smith.

They were two teams loaded with offensive weapons, from St. Louis' Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce to Carolina's Smith and Stephen Davis. They had identities.

Fast-forward 10 years to Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium, where both the Panthers (2-3) and Rams (3-3) are searching for an identity. Panthers team reporter David Newton and Rams team reporter Nick Wagoner are here to break down the 2013 version of this matchup:

David Newton: Nick, it seems both teams have been waiting for their quarterbacks to become consistent winners since they were drafted No. 1, St. Louis' Sam Bradford in 2010 and Carolina's Cam Newton in 2011. Why has it taken so long for Bradford to get there, if he is?

Nick Wagoner: Well, I don't think he is there yet. This is the first year Bradford has had any sort of continuity in terms of scheme, and in the past he's dealt with a mediocre receiver corps and offensive lines that aren't much better. He's not devoid of blame, though. Bradford has had issues in the past with going through progressions and locking onto receivers, among other fundamental problems. He's been up and down this year, but has done a really good job of protecting the ball. Now that the Rams seem to have some semblance of a competent running game, he's been better in the past couple of weeks.

Ultimately, the jury is still out on whether he's the long-term answer, but if he can continue to take care of the ball and toss touchdown passes in leading the Rams to more wins, that picture suddenly gains clarity.

I'm going to ask you to try to analyze Newton. From afar, it seems he struggles with consistency. Is that the case and how do you think he's adjusted to life after Rob Chudzinski?

Newton: Cam Newton's consistency remains a question. Yes, his career-high 143.4 passer rating against Minnesota in Game 5 was impressive, but do you know the last time he topped 100.0 in consecutive weeks during the first six games? Never. Sunday was only the second time this season he completed more than 60 percent of his passes and only the eighth in the past 21 games. His passer rating looks like a yo-yo -- 97.3 to 79.8 to 104.4 to 47.8 to 143.4.

As for life without Chudzinski, it has been a learning process. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula is attempting to go with a more traditional ground game out of the I-formation, but each week he's figuring out better ways to utilize his quarterback's natural abilities. In the long run, he'll make Newton a better quarterback who will have a much longer career relying on his arm more than his legs.

While we're on offense, Carolina's running game ranks seventh in the NFL and the Rams rank 30th against the run. Is this misleading or an area you expect the Panthers to exploit?

Wagoner: Without question, it's the latter. Carolina would be silly not to attack heavily in the run game. The Rams' problems really seem to come in the back seven. Linebacker Alec Ogletree has trouble getting off blocks and is inconsistent tackling, and the Rams aren't getting reliable run support at safety. Darian Stewart has filled in for rookie T.J. McDonald and has really struggled. On top of that, the Rams continue to have issues with being consistently assignment-sound with everyone fitting the proper gaps on run plays.

The Rams' offense, on the other hand, has started to find success in recent weeks with rookie Zac Stacy as the lead back. Carolina has been quite good statistically against the run. Not that the Panthers were bad against the run last year, but what allowed them to go from middle of the pack to upper tier in that area, and do you think that level of success will be sustained over the course of the year?

Newton: First, yes, the Panthers can sustain it. No question the front seven is one of the best in the league. The addition of first-round pick Star Lotulelei and second-round pick Kawann Short at tackle has been key, particularly Lotulelei. He has been as disruptive in the middle as any tackle the Panthers have had since Kris Jenkins was a four-time Pro Bowl selection here. End Greg Hardy has stepped up his game as well, even though statistics might not show it.

Then there is the real strength of this group, the linebackers. Trading Jon Beason to the Giants has been a positive. With Beason out and Chase Blackburn in, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has had more flexibility with his schemes. Thomas Davis is playing more on the weak side, where Beason was, and has three sacks over the past three games. He has never had more than 3.5 in a season. Blackburn can play either spot as well. And while his tackles are down because Davis and Blackburn have been making so many plays, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly continues to perform at the level that earned him the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year a season ago.

This unit is fundamentally strong. It doesn't need a lot of elaborate blitzes to stop the run or pressure the quarterback. Just ask Adrian Peterson how good the Panthers are. He had a season-low 62 rushing yards, and 31 of those came on one carry.

An area that rarely gets discussed in Double Coverage is special teams. Panthers kicker Graham Gano, who has been flawless on field goals, has had only one kickoff not reach the end zone all season. How key have special teams been for the Rams?

Wagoner: The Rams' special teams have been alternately excellent and awful. They have perhaps one of the best coverage units in the league, with punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein having been nearly flawless in their respective disciplines and the young cover guys getting down the field and making tackles consistently. But the Rams have racked up 18 special-teams penalties, with the bulk of those coming on punt returns. That has been maddening for them because many of those infractions have wiped out long returns from rookie Tavon Austin. Progress was made Sunday in that regard, and the Rams even got a touchdown on kick coverage against Houston. The talent is in place in all areas of the special teams. They just need to keep eliminating mistakes and be more consistent.

Getting back to Carolina's defense, I see that the Panthers haven't been too shabby against the pass this year, either. Does that group have any real weaknesses or areas that opponents have been able to exploit? If so, what are they?

Newton: The secondary was suspect before the season and even into the first two games. Since injuries shook things up in Week 2, the Panthers have found the right combination and been solid. They give up passes underneath, as their 68.4 completion percentage -- second worst in the NFL -- attests. Minnesota took advantage last week when Matt Cassel completed 32 passes. But Carolina tackled well and held most of those to short gains.

If I had to pick one weakness, though, I would say left cornerback Josh Thomas. He's solid against the run but soft at times against the pass. If the Rams are to put many points on the board they'll definitely have to do it through the air.


Live blog: Seahawks at Panthers

September, 8, 2013
Join our NFL experts as they break down the Seattle Seahawks' visit to the Carolina Panthers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. See you there.