San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Carolina's Ron Rivera, teammates with the Chicago Bears in the 1980s, square off with very similar teams. Both have stifling defenses, productive power running games, and mobile, dynamic quarterbacks who can pick up first downs with their feet.
Whereas Colin Kaepernick helped bring the 49ers to the brink of a Lombardi Trophy last season, Cam Newton will make his first postseason appearance for the Panthers.
Carolina stunned San Francisco in November with a 10-9 victory at Candlestick Park, but the 49ers were without Kaepernick's favorite target, receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed 11 games because of a torn Achilles' tendon. Kaepernick was limited to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing in that game.
The 49ers will lean heavily on running back Frank Gore, who has a history of productivity in the postseason. In his previous four playoff games, Gore has averaged 91.3 yards rushing. Tight end Vernon Davis has six touchdown catches in six postseason games.
In his first three seasons, Newton has 11,299 yards passing, third most in NFL history. He also has run for 2,032 during that span, more than any quarterback in league history.
Leading Carolina's second-ranked defense is linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL's defensive rookie of the year last season. His 320 tackles since 2012 lead the league.
A numbers game
Steve Smith, the Panthers' all-time leading receiver, expects to be back for Sunday's game after suffering a sprained knee ligament in a Week 16 victory over New Orleans.
In the lead-up to his first playoff game in years, Smith couldn't help but poke fun at the notion of attributing a percentage to his health, as is so common in sports. He said he was at 71% health Wednesday, but downgraded himself Thursday to 57%.
"Honestly," he said, "I just randomly pick numbers."
On the run
Vic Fangio, 49ers defensive coordinator, said his players will be on alert for Newton running more in this game than he typically might.
"They may even call more of the quarterback runs for him, the quarterback powers and lead draws," Fangio said. "We're anticipating more of those from them. Newton's a playmaker, and we all need to be aware of him."
By the numbers
How teams compare statistically. All stats are per-game averages, except for sacks and turnover differential, which are for the season (league rank in parentheses):
Category | SF | CAR
Points scored: 25.4 (11) | 22.9 (18)
Points allowed: 17.0 (3) | 15.1 (2)
Pass offense: 186.2 (30) | 190.2 (29)
Rush offense: 137.6 (3) | 126.6 (11)
Pass defense: 221.0 (7) | 214.3 (6)
Rush defense: 95.9 (4) | 86.9 (2)
Sacks: 38 (18) | 60 (1)
Penalty yards: 52.8 (18) | 41.9 (4)
Turnovers: +12 (4) | +11 (6)
These teams are so similar, the game likely will come down to whichever team has the ball last. Although the Panthers have home-field advantage, the 49ers have a considerable edge in postseason experience, and their offense is significantly different with Crabtree back. This figures to be a brutally hard-hitting defensive showdown. 49ERS 20, PANTHERS 17