NFC West: Cam Newton

A couple weeks after mimicking Cam Newton’s “Superman” pose, Colin Kaepernick has agreed to team with the Carolina Panthers quarterback for some child’s play.

The Cartoon Network announced Wednesday that Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and Newton will host its fourth annual Hall of Game Awards. It premiers Monday, February 17 at 7 p.m. (ET/PT).

"I'm looking forward to sharing the stage with Cam as host this year," Kaepernick said in a press release. "We've both made appearances at past shows, but taking over as hosts? Let's just say we're going to take it to another level."

Added Newton in the press release: "While both of us are newcomers to hosting, we're both high-energy guys, ready to get down to business. We're going to be surrounded by so many sports, TV and movie icons that this show is guaranteed to be the best one yet!"

The last time the two quarterbacks were together was in the NFC divisional playoffs when Kaepernick led the 49ers to a 23-10 road win. He celebrated a touchdown run by doing Newton’s famed “Superman” pose.

After the game, Kaepernick said it was “just a little shout out.” When asked about Kaepernick’s actions, Newton said: "It’s not the first nor the last time somebody does that."
NaVorro BowmanSam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsNaVorro Bowman said the 49ers had "better players" than Carolina in advancing to the NFC title game.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Linebacker NaVorro Bowman said the reason San Francisco 49ers are moving on to their third NFC Championship Game in as many seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh is simple.

“It came down to we had the better players than they did," the NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate said after the 49ers’ outphysicaled and outclutched the host Carolina Panthers in a convincing 23-10 victory in the divisional playoffs. “Yeah, we big-boyed them.”

Indeed. The San Francisco 49ers are big, bad boys.

There are few flaws in the franchise, and that was on display Sunday against a Carolina team that is among the league’s best. The problem for Carolina? The 49ers just may be the league’s very best.

San Francisco, which went 12-4 in the regular season and won in Green Bay in the wild-card round, has now won eight straight (the longest current win streak in the NFL) and 13 of their past 15 games.

Now, the inevitable is going to happen -- the 49ers will play at Seattle for the NFC title Sunday. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. ET. It may seem like this game has been developing for a full year between these two NFC West rivals. Each team held serve at their home field during the regular season.

After the win over Carolina, the 49ers seemed to relish the chance to head back to Seattle, where they have been outscored 71-16 the past two visits, for a chance to get back to the Super Bowl. After the 49ers beat Seattle on Dec. 8 at Candlestick Park, guard Alex Boone said several 49ers told Seattle players they’d see them again in the postseason.

“We didn’t lie,” Boone said Sunday. “If you can’t get excited about his game, you don’t belong in this league.”

Sunday, the 49ers showed they belong.

Seeing this team in the NFC Championship Game has become a yearly tradition under Harbaugh. He has made them tough, physical and focused. All that was on display against the Panthers.

This was a different game than when the Panthers beat the 49ers, 10-9, in San Francisco in Week 10.

“We were offended by that loss, that wasn’t us,” San Francisco fullback Anthony Dixon said Sunday. “Today was about showing Carolina that. We played offended. We showed them who we really are.”

San Francisco was much better offensively Sunday than the first meeting. The 49ers found a way to get into the end zone twice in addition to matching the three field goals they settled for in November against the Panthers.

Defensively, the 49ers played winning football against Carolina. Bowman said the team quietly had a feeling the game would develop the way it did.

“It goes back to having the better players,” he said. “We knew they weren’t going to be able to do much on our defense and then our offense was able to do their thing. So, we really take care of what we had to as a team.”

The 49ers took control of the game when Colin Kaepernick hit tight end Vernon Davis in the final seconds of the first half for a TD to take a 13-10 lead. The 49ers scored the second half’s only 10 points.

San Francisco showed it was the better team often in the second half.

The Panthers put together an 8-minute, 12-second drive only to have to punt because the 49ers came up with back-to-back sacks. This wasn’t the only time the San Francisco defense came up clutch. It had a goal-line stand in the first half and forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal on another goal-line drive.

Offensively, the 49ers, who allowed just one sack Sunday after giving up six against the Panthers in November, had the same clutch big plays. Kaepernick hit receiver Anquan Boldin four times for 75 yards in the second half. Running back Frank Gore broke a 39-yard run on third-and-1 to keep another long San Francisco scoring drive alive.

The 49ers weren’t only the better team -- their playoff experience showed as well. This was Kaepernick’s fifth playoff game. It was the first playoff game for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said it was "just another game" for the 49ers. He said he sensed it was bigger for the Panthers.

“Today, I think our playoff experience helped us,” Whitner said. “I think that showed.”

What showed most? The 49ers are moving to the NFC Championship Game because that’s where they belong.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Colin Kaepernick stole Cam Newton’s “Superman” move.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY Sports49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick celebrates a touchdown run in the third quarter.
So what.

You know what they say: If you don’t want them to do something, stop them.

The side story of the San Francisco 49ers' 23-10 victory against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round came when Kaepernick scored on a 4-yard touchdown run with 8:53 remaining in the third quarter, staking the 49ers to a 20-10 lead. Kaepernick mimicked Newton's “Superman” jersey pulling and then Kaepernick did his trademark bicep kiss.

After the game, Kaepernick said it was “just a little shout out.” Kaepernick wasn’t the only 49er to do it. Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman did the “Superman” move after a fourth-quarter sack of Newton.

When asked about Kaepernick’s actions, Newton said: "It’s not the first nor the last time somebody does that."

Players do this type of stuff all the time. Plenty of San Francisco's foes mimic Kaepernick's bicep kiss.

It’s just a silly little gesture. Newton and the Panthers should be upset about being controlled at home, not a benign motion.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few observations from the San Francisco 49ers' 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round:

What it means: The 49ers advance to the NFC Championship Game. They play at Seattle on Sunday in what may be the most anticipated game of the season. These teams have been on a collision course since the offseason. This is one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries, and it makes sense they will meet to end the NFC season. The 49ers are going to the NFC title game for the third time in as many seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh.

The difference: The 49ers found the end zone two times, unlike when they settled for field goals in a 10-9 loss to Carolina in Week 10. San Francisco also played terrific goal-line defense. It held on fourth down and forced a field goal on another goal-line series.

Stock watch: Colin Kaepernick and Anquan Boldin were at it again. Kaepernick completed four passes to Boldin for 75 yards in the second half.

Super Kap: Kaepernick had some fun after scoring a second-half touchdown when he did Cam Newton’s Superman gesture and then the signature biceps kiss.

Coaching with heavy heart: Harbaugh’s grandfather Joe Cipiti died Sunday morning at the age of 98.

What’s next: The NFC title game at Seattle. It’s the game we’ve all been waiting for. Can the 49ers solve their recent struggles in Seattle? It won’t be easy. It won’t be quiet either.

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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ST. LOUIS -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will make his first career postseason start Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. In doing so, he will become the fifth quarterback taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft since 2004 to start a playoff game.

There are nine active quarterbacks that went first overall in the draft in the league right now. After Sunday, there will be just one who has yet to make a playoff appearance: the Rams' Sam Bradford.

Bradford
Bradford
Newton will join Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck as former No. 1 picks to start a playoff game. All but Stafford, Palmer and, obviously, Newton have won a playoff game.

It's worth noting that in that time, there are other No. 1 quarterbacks who flamed out. Tim Couch, David Carr and JaMarcus Russell are no longer in the league.

For Bradford, the closest he's come to a playoff appearance came in his rookie season. That year, Bradford helped the Rams to a 7-9 record with only a season-ending loss at Seattle keeping them from winning the NFC West division and landing in the postseason. In what amounted to a de facto playoff game, Bradford had one of the worst performances of his rookie season, going 19-of-36 for 155 yards with no touchdowns and an interception for an abysmal QBR of 8.4 as the Rams lost 16-6.

Since, the Rams haven't again sniffed a postseason appearance. Of course, the blame for the lack of playoff berths goes well beyond Bradford. It also pre-dates him to the team's last playoff appearance in 2004.

St. Louis has one of the league's longest streaks of seasons without a playoff bid. Bradford's tenure in St. Louis has mostly fallen in line with the team. In the lost 2011 season, Bradford dealt with an ankle injury and struggled when he was on the field. In 2012, Bradford managed to stay healthy and the Rams improved to 7-8-1.

This year, Bradford tore an ACL in Week 7 against Newton's Panthers and the Rams dipped slightly to finish 7-9 -- though Bradford had seemed to find himself some in the three games before his injury.

Of the quarterbacks on this list, Bradford's career trajectory most closely resembles Smith's to this point. Both players went through a number of coordinator and scheme changes and both had their share of self-inflicted struggles.

San Francisco drafted Smith first overall in 2005 but didn't make his playoff debut until 2011. If Bradford followed a similar timeline, his first postseason appearance would come in 2016. Although the Rams have made it clear they're committed to Bradford as the quarterback of the present and, potentially, the future, the 2016 season would coincide with the end of Bradford's rookie deal.

If Bradford hasn't led the Rams to the playoffs by then, chances are any hopes of doing it in St. Louis would decrease significantly.

Quick Take: 49ers at Panthers

January, 5, 2014
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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. ESPN.com 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.

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Cam Newton was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft. The San Francisco 49ers had no chance to move up and get him. They happily took quarterback Colin Kaepernick 35 picks later.

On Sunday, the two dynamic young quarterbacks will play against each other in the NFL for the first time as the Carolina Panthers visit San Francisco.

Jones
Kaepernick
Newton
Newton
The two were roommates at the NFL combine, and life has been good for both since. Kaepernick has had more tangible success even though, unlike Newton, he didn’t become a starter until midway through his second season. Kaepernick has been to a Super Bowl. He has playoff wins on his résumé despite starting only 18 NFL games.

Newton, spectacular as a rookie and helter-skelter last season, has settled down and has the look of quarterback who may soon see postseason success. He has led the Panthers to four straight wins after a rough 1-3 start. Kaepernick is also rolling, leading his team to five straight wins.

“Everything’s a competition, from being at the combine to being at practice to being in a game,” Kaepernick said. “Everything’s a competition.”

Kaepernick plays with a chip on his shoulder. He enjoyed beating the Titans in Week 7 and the Jaguars in Week 8. Like Carolina, those teams took quarterbacks in the first round in 2011.

It’s difficult to argue the Panthers blew it when they took Newton over Kaepernick. Newton has a big future, and Kaepernick was considered more of a project. But it is clear the 49ers are pleased the way it went down. Kaepernick is perfect athletically and emotionally to run Jim Harbaugh’s offense.

While Harbaugh called Newton’s talents “plutonium grade,” he would surely roll with Kaepernick. Harbaugh played along when a reporter suggested Kaepernick should be the 49ers’ scout-team quarterback this week to help prepare to face Newton.

“That’s a good idea. That’s a very good idea because they are so similar. And in ability, and makeup, and confidence, and in so many ways, talent,” Harbaugh said. “They’re both great. And that’s not a bad idea at all.”

I asked ESPN analyst Matt Williamson who he would rather have, Newton or Kaepernick?

“I will say that Newton is playing better [against some suspect teams] than CK right now, but I still take CK, as he is just a better pure passer,” Williamson said. “Newton has taken a lot more snaps in the NFL than CK. Just wait until CK has that experience under his belt.”

The numbers suggest a team couldn’t go wrong with either Newton or Kaepernick these days. They have been the top two rated quarterbacks in the NFL in the past month. Kaepernick’s Total QBR since Week 6 is a league-leading 94.1. Newton is second at 83.5.

Ted Ginn is an authority on both. He played with Kaepernick the past two years and is now teammates with Newton.

"They both have something a lot people don’t have, and they use it,” Ginn said Wednesday. “Speed. They can run."

On Sunday, the two young quarterbacks will try to outrun, outthrow and outscore each other.
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. ESPN.com 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.

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Cam Newton, Russell WilsonAP Photo, USA TODAY SportsCarolina puts Cam Newton's athleticism on the line versus confident Seattle QB Russell Wilson.
The Seattle Seahawks are the sexy pick to win the Super Bowl, with the hot quarterback featured in GQ magazine. The Carolina Panthers are the wannabe team with the once-hot quarterback who has lost some of the luster off his cover-boy status.

But there's one thing these teams have in common as they prepare to open the 2013 NFL season on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

Slow starts.

Carolina has the worst opening-day record in the league at 6-12. Seattle ranks 30th, with only the New Orleans Saints and Panthers behind them. The winner will at least emerge with a chance to change that.

So how do they stack up in what appears a mismatch? Panthers team reporter David Newton and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount are here to tell you.

Let's get right to the question most people are asking: Who is the better quarterback? Carolina's Cam Newton or Seattle's Russell Wilson?

Newton: I know Wilson and the Seahawks are the sweethearts of the league after making the playoffs last season. But if I were starting a team, I'd take Newton, and not because we share the same last name. I know the Panthers would. They talked last season about drafting Wilson to back up the first pick of the 2011 draft before Seattle got him in the third round. Backup! Look, Wilson is a solid player who is surrounded by a better supporting cast than Newton has had in his first two seasons and has again this year. Wilson does some great things with his arm and legs. He makes good decisions. Newton would kill for his completion percentage of 64.1 last season. But Newton is one of those special players who, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, can do things the 5-11, 206-pound Wilson can only dream of. Go back and look at the 72-yard touchdown run Newton capped with a flip into the end zone in a 30-20 victory against a one-loss Atlanta team last season and you'll see what I'm talking about. Wilson's biggest edge comes in leadership, and I believe you'll see Newton step it up in that department this year. I see his stock on the rise. Of all the first-year quarterbacks who made the playoffs last year, Wilson is my choice to have a sophomore slump.

Blount: Newt, I honestly tell you that the Seahawks coaches and players would take Wilson every day of the week, and frankly, I think so would most NFL coaches. In the more than 30 years I've covered sports, I've never met a more impressive young man than Wilson. He's just one of those once-in-a-generation-type athletes who you look at him and listen to him, then you say, "This guy is going places in life." Yes, Cam has more experience, and, obviously, more size. He's an exceptional athlete, a man that Seattle coach Pete Carroll called "a phenomenal talent." But he isn't the team leader that Wilson is, and won't make as many good decisions at key moments as Wilson will.

Let's turn to a team question. Which team will show more improvement this season? Not the better record, but bigger step forward? The Seahawks, who were 11-5 and a playoff team? Or the Panthers, who were 7-9?

Blount: That's a tough one. I think Carolina could finish with a winning record this season and possibly make the playoffs, which would be a nice improvement over 2012. But since I picked Seattle to go 12-4 and reach the Super Bowl this year, I'll have to go with the Seahawks.

Newton: Definitely a tough one. I don't see Carolina making the playoffs, but I do see the Panthers coming close to a winning record. And they will improve on defense with the return of Jon Beason at linebacker and more talent at tackle. How much they improve overall depends on the progression of the offensive line, which didn't look good during the preseason. Seattle has all the pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but I still think the Seahawks are the second-best team in their division, behind San Francisco. They did so many good things last year it's hard to see them making a substantial improvement. If they do, it really will be Super Bowl or bust.

Now to the game. Last year, Seattle won 16-12 in a defensive struggle in Week 5. Do you see this game being similar?

Newton: Definitely. And if it's not, Seattle could make it ugly, because Carolina can't win a shootout. The strength of both teams is defense. We're probably looking at two of the top 10 units in the league. Both are used to practicing against the run-option that Newton and Wilson ran well at the end of last season, so they'll be prepared to handle it. The key for Carolina to make this a defensive battle will be the secondary. Will it be the unit that had a league-high 10 interceptions during the preseason, or the one that was soft most of last season?

Blount: The defenses typically are ahead of the offenses at the start of the season, so that could play into a matchup with two strong defensive units. However, I do expect this game to have a little more scoring than the one last year, because I think both quarterbacks will play better than they did in that game. You're spot-on about the secondary, Newt. I think both secondaries are the key. Seattle might have the best defensive backs in the league and the Panthers looked much improved. But no secondary can cover these receivers forever. What this could come down to is which defensive unit does a better job rushing the passer and which is better able to contain two of the best running quarterbacks in the league.

RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks defense knows how dangerous Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is when he runs with the football. So what’s the plan?

Newton
Newton
“We can’t let Cam run on us,” Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “We want to make him try to beat us throwing, which I don’t think he can do.”

Wagner has great respect for Newton’s athletic ability, but he feels the Seahawks have to focus on taking something away from him.

“We want to force him to make tough decisions,” Wagner said. “In the read-option, you have to be disciplined. If one person doesn’t have their man, you could see Cam run for 80 yards.

“Everything is not going to happen the way it’s supposed to for us. Somebody is going to have to step up and make a play.”

Newton completed only 12 of 29 passes for 141 yards in Seattle’s 16-12 victory in Charlotte last October.

“The most important thing we did [in the Carolina game last year] was get after the quarterback,” safety Earl Thomas said. “We got under his skin a little bit.

“Basically, just keep getting hits [on Newton]. With a quarterback like that, you try to move him off his spot. It makes it hard for him. It’s delaying his decisions. That’s what you’re talking about when you play Cam Newton. You have to pressure him.”

Defensive end O’Brien Schofield, who probably will start Sunday because of Cliff Avril’s hamstring injury, said the defense has to be ready for Newton’s speed.

“He definitely has a motor,” Schofield said. “So if he gets by your first pass-rushing move, you have to be able to chase him down when he gets outside of the pocket.”

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
11:40
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Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

NFL teams have played their most important snaps of the 2013 exhibition season now that every team has played at least three games.

This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.

Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.

A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
  • St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.
Years ago, conventional wisdom would have applauded Carson Palmer for topping 4,000 yards passing with the Oakland Raiders last season.

Now, conventional wisdom has evolved to the point where mainstream analysis discounts those 4,000 yards because Palmer, entering his first season with the Arizona Cardinals, accumulated those yards in a losing context. Palmer went 4-11 as a starter.

Andy from New York hit the NFC West mailbag with a challenge we'll take up here. He thinks Palmer deserves more credit than he's getting.

"After two minutes of research, I found on the Hall of Fame's website that only 48 quarterbacks have thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season (a combined 110 times)," Andy wrote. "Of those 110, only 18 times has it been done on a losing team (14 more times with a .500 record). If it is so 'easy' for a QB to rack up yards when playing from behind (when the defense knows it is a passing situation), why has it been accomplished only 18 times on a losing team in the entire history of the NFL?"

It's an interesting point. Passing for that many yards in a season requires some talent, obviously. But there is nothing inherently magical about the 4,000-yard plateau. Palmer passed for 3,970 yards while posting a 4-12 record in 2010. The 48-yard gap between 2010 (3,970 yards) and 2012 (4,018 yards) means nothing.

Palmer, Jon Kitna and Drew Brees each owns two seasons with at least 4,000 yards and a losing record. Elvis Grbac, Josh Freeman, Trent Green, Jeff Garcia, Bill Kenney, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Matthew Stafford and Vinny Testaverde have each done it once.

Some of those quarterbacks were or are great players. Others were not so great.

ESPN developed the Total QBR metric to measure a quarterback's contributions to winning, whether or not the quarterback accumulated lots of passing yards. Manning scored a league-high 84.1 out of 100 last season. Mark Sanchez scored a league-low 34.0.

QBR can tell us something about the recent run on 4,000-yard seasons. Quarterbacks have combined for 42 of them since 2008. The QBR score Palmer posted last season (44.7) ranked 42nd out of those 42 on the list. The chart shows the seven times over the past five years when a quarterback passed for at least 4,000 yards without posting a winning record. Palmer probably had the worst supporting cast, but if anything, QBR affirms the general feeling on Palmer.

Now, back to Andy's point. Why aren't more quarterbacks from losing teams passing for 4,000 yards regularly? I'd venture that most quarterbacks good enough to pass for that many yards will be good enough to help their teams win most of the time. The question here is whether Palmer is one of those quarterbacks. Recent evidence suggests he might not be, but I think his prospects will improve with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Rob Housler and possibly even Patrick Peterson catching his passes.

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