Doubt surrounds this Carolina Panthers team, and it's understandable. For all the convincing wins and dominant performances only one team the Panthers have beat in 2013 had a .500 record when they met, the now 3-6 St. Louis Rams. Sunday's game is much like week one's matchup against the Seattle Seahawks -- it's not a must win, but a must complete. A win or close loss over the San Francisco 49ers would cement the Panthers are one of the league's elite, a bad loss would erode a month's worth or good will.
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh called Cam Newton "plutonium-grade raw material" prior to the 2011 draft. It was a respectful way to characterize the then-Auburn quarterback as an immensely talented and imposing player that could be harnessed into something special. Three years later that plutonium has been refined a little, but it's still far from stable.
Newton has a tendency to swing between extremes, though the peaks are higher and the valleys aren't quite as pronounced. In 2013 he's posted a passer rating of 100 or better in four games, and less than 80 in another three. Week nine's game against the Atlanta Falcons was a turning point, one where he struggled but was still able lead his team to victory.
Colin Kaepernick is exactly what the San Francisco 49ers need. He's even-keeled, fairly consistent (outside of two games this season) and knows his role inside the team's offense. Kaepernick doesn't force passes or will plays into existence, he's a poised young quarterback that picks his spots to gash defenses.
The Panthers haven't faced a mobile quarterback with his ability this season. He's a different test to what the defense saw against the Seattle Seahawks, where Russell Wilson moves better in the pocket but Kaepernick's legs are more dangerous outside of it.
Defending the 49ers is made complicated by a cadre of dangerous weapons. Carolina doesn't have a good option to cover Anquan Boldin, and the team's inconsistent play at stopping tight ends could result in a big day for Vernon Davis.
Flip to the other side and a lot of Sunday's outcome could hinge on Aldon Smith, who's slated to return. San Francisco has struggled at rushing quarterbacks this year without Smith, and he's the kind of defender that could give Newton a tough time.
It's a fascinating game because of how similar these two teams are, but the 49ers have an edge on quantity of weapons and coaching that puts them just over the top.
This is going to be fun. If you like brusing between-tackle running and stout defensive line play then this is the game for you.
San Francisco enter Sunday's game with the league's best running attack -- averaging 153 yards per game. The Panthers are the NFL's second-best run stopping unit, allowing just 79.1 rushing yards.
Get inside the matchup and the Panthers have the personnel to stop Frank Gore. His style isn't dissimilar to Marshawn Lynch, who Carolina has stopped in two-straight years. Star Lotulelei and Luke Kuechly are a fearsome one-two punch at stopping running, particularly ones that like to go up the gut like Gore.
DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton are a formidable rushing unit with the capability to throw a lot of different looks at a defense. The Panthers have the league's eighth ranked run offense, while the 49ers are 12th in run stopping.
Sunday's game will be about adjustment, and it's an area the Panthers match up well with their ability to plug-and-play different running backs. On the surface it's a matchup the 49ers should win, but dig down and it's possible to see this game going to Carolina.
Win or lose this is going to be a heck of a football game. The Panthers need to make a statement that they're for real, and not a middling team coasting along on a soft schedule. It's not so much about making the playoffs in 2013, it's about sustaining success in the future. Carolina could be like Minnesota or Indianapolis, the former representing a playoff team from a year ago that was a pretender, the latter representing a maligned team on a soft schedule now showing they're for real.
It's a vitally important game for scores of reasons, especially in the NFC South and West playoff races. Ultimately I think the Panthers ability to run the ball will allow them to control the clock, and the defense has the edge on pass rushing. The x-factor will be coaching, but the risk-taking Panthers are exactly the type of team that could knock off one of the NFL's best.
Carolina Panthers 30 - San Francisco 49ers 27
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