NFC West: Carolina Panthers

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.

.

Live blog: Panthers at Cardinals

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
2:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Carolina Panthers' visit to the Arizona Cardinals. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 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.

49ers draft watch: Pick from Carolina

November, 23, 2009
11/23/09
2:59
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Undrafted rookie Brit Miller joins the 49ers' linebackers heading into training camp after the team claimed him off waivers from Carolina. I would tentatively put him in the category with players hoping to earn spots on the practice squad. Miller lacks ideal size and the 49ers have better depth at inside linebacker after drafting Scott McKillop.

Update: The 49ers intend to have Miller play fullback. He's going to have to earn his place on special teams anyway. Miller: "I won't have any trouble picking up on it because I am an offensive-minded player. I am OK playing with the ball behind me. I am going to try to do my job no matter where the ball is. I'm just trying to beat the man in front of me."

Miller had high hopes after the Panthers paid him a $6,000 bonus as part of a three-year deal. Life as an undrafted free agent tends to be an adventure, however. The Panthers waived Miller and another undrafted rookie linebacker, Mike Juergens, last week. The NFL awarded Miller to the 49ers after San Francisco placed the only claim on him.

That leaves the 49ers with 82 players, counting injured cornerback Walt Harris and four unsigned draft choices.

Miller, from Illinois, is 6 feet and 243 pounds. He was a team captain at Illinois. Pro Football Weekly's 2009 Draft Preview book called him "tough and instinctive" with good intangibles. They liked his strength, said he played hard and reacted quickly.

On the down side, Miller appeared "not very agile or quick-footed" to the point where he "could be restricted to playing on run downs" only. PFW described Miller as a "tough plugger" who "made his senior year his best and should warrant a chance to compete" in an NFL training camp.

It appears as though Miller will get that chance.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The 49ers' and Seahawks' ability to land first-round choices in 2010 set apart their drafts. Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports takes a closer look at how the 49ers pulled it off (thanks to redng0ld for passing along the link).

The piece looks at the draft from general manager Scot McCloughan's perspective. My favorite passage covers the period when Panthers general manager Marty Hurney offered Carolina's first-round choice in 2010 to the 49ers. Here is how Silver described it:

McCloughan was so happy, he was tempted to make the deal on the spot. Instead, he said to Hurney, with as much nonchalance as he could muster, "OK, I'll get back to you." It was halfway through the team's seven-minute window, and there were a lot of nerves in the draft room as McCloughan hung up the phone and did absolutely nothing.

"That's the part of the draft I love," he says. It's like a chess match. When I hung up the phone, everyone in the room was looking at me, and I just stared up at the ceiling. They're going, 'What are we gonna do?' I'm there thinking, 'Hmmm, Carolina's got the toughest schedule in the league next year. [Jake] Delhomme's a pretty good quarterback, but if he gets hurt ... that pick could be pretty high.' "

About two minutes passed before McCloughan reached for the phone. Instead of calling Hurney, however, he added to the tension by "purposely dialing the wrong number first. Finally, I dialed again and tried to get more out of Marty -- 'Can you throw in your [sixth-round pick]?' I had to try it. He said no, and I said, 'OK,' and made the trade."

The 49ers' ability to land Michael Crabtree and a 2010 first-round choice makes this draft highly promising for San Francisco even though the team didn't address primary needs.

And, as McCloughan indicated in the Silver piece, the team isn't necessarily finished. I'm not sure what the 49ers have planned, but if they could find a way to further address needs, this offseason could become a smashing success -- or at least as successful as an offseason can be without having an established starting quarterback.

Peppers' comments sure to fuel hopes

January, 17, 2009
1/17/09
2:03
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

A fair percentage of questions I receive about free agency center on whether the 49ers or Seahawks might make a run for Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.

The Seahawks have already invested heavily in Patrick Kerney, and they want their new defensive staff to develop young defensive ends Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson. For those reasons, I've questioned whether Seattle would make a run at Peppers.

The 49ers? They invested heavily in Justin Smith. But with the team committing more to a 3-4 defense, and with Peppers now saying he wants out and he wants to play in a 3-4, fans can dare to dream, right?

Something tells me we haven't received our last mailbag missive on this subject.

No denying Cardinals' makeover

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
1:17
AM ET
 
  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald added to his season-long highlight reel, catching eight passes for 166 yards in a 33-13 win over the Panthers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The book on the Arizona Cardinals needs an overhaul, and fast.

Everything you thought you knew about this no-longer-forlorn franchise merits revisiting following the Cardinals' 33-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round at Bank of America Stadium.

The Arizona team that struggled against quality opponents outside the NFC West has suddenly defeated two of them in eight days.

The Arizona team that couldn't win on the East Coast handed the Panthers their first home defeat of the season.

  Cardinals-Panthers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  Watch highlights from Arizona's 33-13 win over the Panthers.

The Arizona team that finished the regular season ranked last among NFL teams in rushing yards suddenly can run the ball in January, when it matters most.

The Arizona team that once seemed less popular in its home market than the Dallas Cowboys has now won three playoff games since Jerry Jones' franchise last tasted postseason success.

"Yes, sir!" defensive end Antonio Smith shouted as he charged toward the visitors' locker room.

That was about as boisterous as the Cardinals would get after the most significant victory since the 1947 Chicago Cardinals defeated Philadelphia for the NFL title.

Oh, they were thrilled to prove skeptics wrong and advance to the NFC title game against the winner of the Eagles-Giants game. But they stopped short of jubilant.

"We know we have to continue to stay humble," Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson said. "We are taking everything in stride."

For that they can thank coach Ken Whisenhunt and the staff he brought to the desert. The success Whisenhunt enjoyed in Pittsburgh -- repeated playoff berths and a Super Bowl title -- gave him a level of credibility his predecessors lacked.

The Cardinals have responded. They are surprising their critics, but not themselves. The Cardinals are dangerous and they know it.

"We've gone through a lot and we're playing pretty good football right now, and that's what is important," Whisenhunt said.

Eight things the Cardinals' victory demonstrated:

(Read full post)

Cardinals providing 'wow' factor early

January, 10, 2009
1/10/09
8:50
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE -- Lots of "wows" and other expressions of surprise here in the Bank of America Stadium press box.

The Cardinals are passing, running and capitalizing on opportunities early in this game. Larry Fitzgerald has lived up to his reputation as a great jump-ball catcher.

Edgerrin James made a linebacker miss in stretching a screen pass into a 9-yard gain deep in Carolina territory. Just as they did in Week 8, the Cardinals forced and recovered a Jake Delhomme fumble deep in Panthers territory, setting up a touchdown.

Sometimes a road team needs to withstand the opponent's initial rush. The Cardinals have done that. They need to tighten up their tackling and coverage, but if you had told Ken Whisenhunt his team would hold a 14-7 lead in the first quarter, he would have taken it.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE -- The Cardinals named injured receiver Anquan Boldin inactive against the Panthers in their divisional playoff game.

Boldin's absence will likely affect the Cardinals' approach to this game, as discussed previously. Also inactive for Arizona: cornerback Eric Green, linebacker Victor Hobson, tackle Elliot Vallejo, tackle Brandon Keith, defensive tackle Alan Branch and tight end Ben Patrick. Brian St. Pierre is the third quarterback. If he plays, Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart could not return.

That leaves Stephen Spach and Leonard Pope as the active tight ends. Pope hasn't played much this season. He previously struggled with false-start penalties on running plays.

Inactive for Carolina: receiver D.J. Hackett, safety Quinton Teal, linebacker Adam Seward, guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, receiver Kenneth Moore, defensive tackle Darwin Walker and defensive tackle J'Vonne Parker. Matt Moore is the third quarterback.

Mild weather, light rain in Charlotte

January, 10, 2009
1/10/09
6:20
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE -- Light rains are falling at Bank of America Stadium, but temperatures remain in the upper 50s with about 2 hours until kickoff.

I was expecting colder weather. Low temperatures have been adjusted to the mid 40s, up from the low 30s earlier in the week. Wet conditions might hurt the Cardinals' passing game, but these conditions are far from wintry.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Zane from San Jose, Calif., writes: One of the BEST things that has happened for the Cards may go overlooked. They get to play well into the EVENING on Saturday night. As a 20 year coach of elite athletes training for U.S. Olympic teams, I understand the extreme disadvantage that comes with having to travel east, through 3 time zones, and then compete early in the day.

At the highest level of sport, this disadvantage is profound and universal. In the night game, the Cards will be playing the game when their bodies and metabolisms are at their peak. This will significantly help offset the colder game temperature. While this fact is certainly not an automatic predictor for Cards success, e.g., see the "Thanksgiving Day Debacle", I am sure that the players and coaches were pumping their collective fists when they learned about the game time.

[Note most elite level Olympic athletes, who admittedly tend to compete less frequently that pro team athletes, will begin to adapt their training and sleeping schedules for any 2 hour+ time change, 3 to 4 weeks ahead of the competition.]

Mike Sando: I do think the kickoff time is potentially significant and I thank you for shining light on it. I would give the Cardinals less chance if the game kicked off at 11 a.m. MT.

John from Great Falls, Mont., writes: In my opinion Willis got jipped out of a first team All-Pro by Jon Beason. Sure, Jon Beason is good ... but Willis is outstanding and is quite possibly the best 49ers defender since Ronnie Lott. Willis was better in every statistical category except interceptions, and even then Willis returned his on interception for a touchdown! Also, the 49ers do not have the same amount of talent (especially on the defensive line) to keep Willis clean like Beason, who has the advantage of playing behind a line that includes Julius Peppers and Maake Kameaoutu, and so usually Beason is allowed to run free.

Willis, on the other hand, still routinely makes plays all over the field even when routinely having to fight off blockers. Willis also makes way more plays behind the LOS (7 tfl, 1 sack) while Beason does not. So, bottom line: Do you think Willis should have beaten out Beason for the 1st Team All Pro? Or not. I'm just curious about what you think (honestly, I was really hoping that Willis would be the first 49ers defender to make two pro-bowls and two first team all-pros in his first two seasons). Btw, love your blog.

Mike Sando: Thanks, John. I think the Panthers' team success helped put Beason over the top, more than anything Willis or Beason did differently this season. Both are very good young players. One of them enjoyed much more team success. I really think that was the difference.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Current NFL Referee Penalties Per Game vs. Cardinals*
Penalties Per Game vs. Panthers*
Walt Anderson
8.8
7.1
Jerome Boger
7.6

Mike Carey
7.5
5.3
Bill Carollo
9.0
8.2
Carl Cheffers


Walt Coleman
8.6
5.6
Tony Corrente
6.4
7.2
Scott Green
7.0

Ed Hochuli

8.8
Bill Leavy 6.8
5.6
Terry McAulay
6.3
Peter Morelli 4.8
5.3
John Parry


Al Riveron


Gene Steratore 5.5
4.3
Jeff Triplette
8.3

Ron Winter
9.2
7.3
* Since 2003, minimum four games

Tracking referee statistics this season told us which one assessed the most penalties (Ron Winter), which ones suffered the most replay reversals (Bill Leavy) and which ones almost never faced booth-initiated challeenges (Mike Carey, Bill Carollo).

I've also been looking at which referees tend to assess the most and fewest penalties against certain teams.

The chart shows how many penalties per game each current referee has assessed, on average, against the Cardinals and Panthers since 2003. To avoid aberrations, I considered statistics only for referees who worked at least four gam
es involving each team during that span.

Jeff Triplette never works Panthers games because he's from North Carolina. Arizona resident Ed Hochuli rarely works Cardinals games. Al Riveron and Carl Cheffers were first-year referees, so they did not have enough games to qualify.

Using the stated criteria. Peter Morelli has assessed the fewest penalties per game against the Cardinals (4.8). Winter (9.2) and Carollo have assessed the most (9.0).

For the Panthers, Gene Steratore has assessed the fewest penalties per game over that span (4.3), while Hochuli has assessed the most (8.8).

The league generally does not announce referee assignments in advance, except for the Super Bowl. For a detailed look at officiating stats by referee, please sample my 2008 NFL officiating download. This covers all 256 regular-season games.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Third quarters have been pivotal for the Cardinals this season. No team scored more third-quarter points than Arizona during the regular season. Quarterback Kurt Warner tossed 12 touchdown passes with no interceptions during third quarters.

Will the third quarter prove pivotal for the Cardinals at Carolina in the divisional round? The teams' previous meeting this season says it might. Carolina scored two touchdowns in a 46-second span of the third quarter during a comeback victory over Arizona in Week 8.

The Cardinals and Panthers combined for 34 third-quarter points that day, with Carolina scoring 21 of them. Six third-quarter possessions between the teams produced five touchdown drives. The only non-scoring drive ended when Edgerrin James fumbled in Cardinals territory, setting up a one-play touchdown drive for the Panthers. Carolina won, 27-23.

For the season, Carolina outscored opponents by three points in first quarters and three points in fourth quarters. The Panthers held a 149-92 scoring advantage in second quarters and a 99-71 edge in third quarters. The Cardinals held a 154-81 edge in third quarters, but opponents outscored them in every other quarter (84-64 in the first, 150-117 in the second and 111-86 in the fourth).

Arizona held a 14-0 advantage in the third quarter of its 30-24 victory over the Falcons in the wild-card round. Coach Ken Whisenhunt must be a pretty persuasive halftime speaker.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Pat Yasinskas

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas dropped by for a little pregame debate heading into the Cardinals-Panthers divisional playoff game Saturday. We chose the topics and we invite you to pull up a chair and join us in discussing which team has the advantage in certain areas.

Warner Delhomme
Q. Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme are the two best undrafted quarterbacks of our time. Both have been to the Super Bowl and held up over time. Which veteran quarterback would you rather have right now?

Pat Yasinskas: I'll take Delhomme because he is what he is. He's the perfect quarterback in Carolina's system and that system is working to perfection right now. That means the Panthers are back to being a running team. There's not a lot of pressure on Delhomme and that's when he's at his best and most dangerous. Since defenses have to worry so much about the running game, Delhomme can look for Steve Smith in a good matchup. Sometimes Smith in double coverage is a good matchup. As long as Delhomme can get Smith the ball seven or eight times, he'll be in great shape.

Warner's had a very nice season. But I think, with Arizona's system and receivers, any NFL quarterback (except Matt Leinart) could have put up those same numbers. Warner's old and not even close to what he was early this decade when he was a product of the system in "The Greatest Show on Turf."

Mike Sando: Delhomme should have the advantage backed by the home crowd and that rock-solid running game, but Warner is clearly the better fit for the Cardinals' wide-open passing game. And there's no way "any NFL quarterback" but Matt Leinart could match Warner's numbers in this system. Warner's numbers hold up against the best numbers in NFL history. That makes him more than just a product of the system. The Cardinals couldn't run this offense in its 2008 form with most quarterbacks.

Warner is highly accurate and his experience helps him get rid of the football before he takes sacks. Delhomme finished this season with 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Trent Edwards and Seneca Wallace had higher ratings. Warner had 12 touchdown passes with no interceptions in third quarters alone. And he did it without a single Pro Bowl player on his offensive line and virtually no help from the running game.

In watching Warner every week, it's clear he can play at an MVP level within this offense. He just needs protection and a little help with play selection to win in the playoffs.

The better teams started getting to Warner late in the regular season. The Cardinals fell in love with their four-receiver offense at the expense of a running game, and it caught up to them a little bit, in my view. Warner started looking a little older. The pressure of the opposing pass rush, coupled with the pressure of carrying the offense, seemed to wear on Warner, revealing his age.

The emergence of a running threat over the last two games has helped Warner stabilize his play. I have no problem siding with Warner in this matchup based on his performance against Carolina in Week 8, his success in past playoffs (6-2 postseason record as a starter) and the security blanket he enjoys in Larry Fitzgerald.

(Read full post)

First look: Cardinals-Panthers

January, 4, 2009
1/04/09
8:32
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

No. 4 seed Arizona Cardinals (10-7) at No. 2 seed Carolina Panthers (12-4), Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET

PHOENIX -- The Panthers might not recognize the Cardinals when Arizona visits Carolina in the divisional round Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET.

Kurt Warner and the Cardinals' passing game were at the peak of their aerial powers when Carolina overcame a 17-3 deficit to beat Arizona, 27-23, during a Week 8 game at Bank of America Stadium. Warner completed 35 of 49 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns as Arizona made no apologies for ignoring its then-struggling ground game.

For Arizona, that game marked receiver Anquan Boldin's return from facial injuries and Edgerrin James' final start of the 2008 regular season. Injuries were limiting the team's options at tight end, another reason the Cardinals were committing themselves to a wide-open style of offense featuring three or more wide receivers most of the time.

Expect the Cardinals to bring a different type of team to Carolina for the rematch. We break down some of the differences while taking a closer look at what to expect from Arizona:

(Read full post)

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC WEST SCOREBOARD