While the Panthers allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game in the regular season at 86.9, they did give up 4.0 yards per rush, just 16th-best in the league. Frank Gore found success in the first meeting, gaining 82 yards on 16 carries. The wild card could be 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, who ran for 98 yards last week against the Green Bay Packers but just 16 in the regular season against Carolina.
Niners receiver Michael Crabtree has been the apple of Kaepernick’s eye since returning from an Achilles’ injury, hauling in eight passes for 125 yards in last week’s win against the Packers. Crabtree missed the regular-season meeting against the Panthers and tight end Vernon Davis left with a concussion. Kaepernick threw for just 91 yards and was sacked six times in that game. Carolina allowed just 17 passing TDs all year and recorded 20 interceptions.
Carolina doesn’t have one stud ball-carrier, but will employ a stable of backs to try and wear down the 49ers’ front seven. DeAngelo Williams, bruiser Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart, whose status is uncertain due to a knee sprain, will likely split carries. The 49ers didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all season, but Carolina did total 109 yards on the ground in their regular-season game. Like Kaepernick, QB Cam Newton could be a wild card.
The Panthers could get a boost in the passing game if receiver Steve Smith returns as expected. He sprained his PCL in Week 16. Carolina averaged only 190.2 passing yards per game this season, but it does have some deep threats in the form of Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell. The Niners, who are allowing a league-low 14.9 points per game since Week 4, sacked Newton three times and intercepted him once in the regular season.
COACHING The impact Jim Harbaugh has made on the 49ers is remarkable. In his three seasons, he’s 36-11-1 in the regular season and 4-2 in the postseason. On the other side, Panthers coach Ron Rivera will be making his first foray into the playoffs as a head coach. After going 13-19 his first two seasons, he has turned things around. Harbaugh and the 49ers do have to be careful that their liberal use of timeouts doesn’t cost them at some point.