Finally to finish off the Divisional Round, we conclude with the final NFC match-up.
San Francisco at Carolina
Looking at this match-up there is one thing I’m looking forward to the most: Colin Kaepernick against Luke Kuechly. Watching a QB go toe-to-toe with a MLB is some of the best football we get to watch. It may not be like watching Ray Lewis go against Peyton Manning, but these two can put on a show. Kuechly had a game earlier this season where he recorded 22 tackles, and Kaep is becoming one of the better mobile QBs in the league. It’ll be fun to watch each get the better of the other, but one will ultimately win, who? Let’s jump into this NFC match-up.
San Francisco 49ers
Offensively the visitors weren’t wow-ing anyone until they got back Michael Crabtree. In the opening week, Anquan Boldin showed why he is such an asset and why the 49ers traded for him. Boldin lit up the Packers in the season opener, and Kaep saw firsthand why his DBs had trouble covering him in the Super Bowl the previous season. Without Crabtree, the 49ers didn’t struggle, but they weren’t as prolific in the beginning as they have been as of late. Although Boldin still has size and strength, speed isn’t his best attribute, now I’m not calling him slow, just not as fast as Crabtree. The former Texas Tech Red Raider is lightening in a bottle just waiting to spring out and show the defense whose boss. With the two main WR threats, the 49ers also have the next best thing, a big, physical, speedy TE: Vernon Davis. Since former coach Mike Singletary said he wanted winners, Davis has been playing better. It took current coach Jim Harbaugh to really get the best of Davis, which showed last year when Davis ran straight to his coach balling his eyes out after catching the go-ahead TD against the Saints. Davis plays harder than a lot of players in the NFL, and he is one of the toughest covers for any defense. He is usually too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs. Along with the triple threat down the field, the 49ers also have two solid runners in Frank Gore and LaMichael James. Gore is the workhorse back who gets most of the carries, while James is seldom used, but he could see more touches as the wear and tear of the regular season catches up with Gore. If the 49ers can get their running game going, they will be tough to stop, because they will also get use out of the play action. Kaep can play with the best of them and his ability to scramble just aids his already solid QB form. He has moments where he needs to calm down and set his feet, but otherwise does a good job getting off good spirals to his multiple targets. Kaep is out for a Super Bowl win this year after being “that close” last year.
On defense this team is scary. They have some of the best in the NFL for the front seven, and their secondary isn’t shabby either. Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman are just a few of the front seven, and they give Offensive Coordinators and opposing QBs nightmares. With Donte Whitner and Eric Reid sitting at the safety position, Cam Newton will need to be careful where he puts the ball for two reasons; first, he doesn’t want to get his WR/TE killed, and second, he doesn’t want to throw an INT. Look for some fun (scary) formations from the 49er defense, delayed blitzes and corner/safety blitzes are very easy when you have young, fast players in the secondary.
After starting the season 1-3, few believed that the Panthers could make the playoffs, much less earn the #2 overall seed in the NFC. However, with a QB like Cam Newton and an offense that he has around him, it is about time these Panthers did something impressive. With Steve Smith not at 100%, it’ll be up to Domenik Hixon to step up and show that he can play ball. Hixon has been around the block with several teams, but somehow never seems to stick. He has made big plays in his career, but few remember them because he hasn’t been able to make it with one team. He played for the Broncos a while back, and I remember him making big plays in the punt and kick return, but he could never get into high on the depth chart for WRs. He played for the Giants and helped them win their first Super Bowl against the Patriots. Now with the Panthers he has done some good things, but none bigger than his game-winning TD against the Saints in week 16. Greg Olsen will also be a key player for the Panthers. He may not be the as big or as fast as Vernon Davis, but he has what it takes to play at a high level in other ways. Olsen is a solid route runner, and he is always giving Newton an open target to throw to. Olsen also finds holes in the defense and sits there waiting for the ball. Usually beside Newton in the backfield is DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and/or Jonathan Stewart. Williams and Stewart used to be a formidable pair as a tandem, but I haven’t seen them split as many carries this year. However, Tolbert has been a great addition since following former San Diego coach Ron Rivera. All three backs run behind their pads and lower their shoulder to get extra yards. Williams can take the ball to the endzone at any time, so watch for a few homerun bursts if he can avoid the 49ers front seven. Looking at Newton, he has improved a lot since setting a lot of records as a rookie. His deep ball is more accurate, his feet don’t get too happy when he’s in the pocket. Most times, Newton has been able to stay in the pocket and not scramble as much, but like Kaep, Newton is always ready and willing to take off and get the first down. With or without Steve Smith, Newton will need to be careful, but still aggressive if he wants to beat the 49ers.
Defensively this team is one of the best in the NFL. They aren’t loaded with household names, but with players like Greg Hardy and Luke Kuechly. The Panthers have the ability to rush the passer and cover a lot of ground in man and zone. Just like I said with San Francisco, watch for mixed formations and new wrinkles to confuse Kaepernick and his protection (O-line and RBs).
This game will be fun to watch, but may not foster as many points as some of the other Divisional Round games. I expect a defensive game the first three quarters with a mini-explosion of offense in the fourth quarter. I think the Panthers can find what it takes to knock the Super Bowl runner-up out of the 2014 playoffs. Panthers win, 24-20.