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.