Why the 49ers Will Win
We call on Niners Nation's very own David Fucillo for this one:
Stop me if you've heard this one, the 49ers offense will key a win because Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis will be back in the lineup. I realize this has been heard ad nauseam, but you might be underestimating the importance of Crabtree in particular to this offense. His return has sparked Colin Kaepernick to improved numbers across the board. The 49ers offense has had some inconsistencies, but they are simply more effective when Crabtree, Davis and Boldin are all on the field.
Just from a depth chart standpoint, the return of Crabtree means a lot for this team compared to previous years. The last two years the 49ers went into the playoffs with Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, and a group of ineffective third options. This year, they go into the playoffs with Crabtree, Davis and Boldin. I realize the Panthers can bring the heat on Kap, and if the team does not work in some quick, short passes, Kap could get eaten up. But they have the weapons to do that.
The 49ers defense can key this team to a win by forcing Cam Newton out of his comfort zone. The pass rush got to Aaron Rodgers last week in the Wild Card round, and at times Rodgers seemed gun shy. I imagine some of that was due to the cold and his own collarbone injury, but the pass rush was making its presence felt.
When these two teams met in Week 10, Aldon Smith was making his first start since Week 3. Rust was an issue, but even more so was the limited amount of work he got. He only played 12 snaps, which was 18 percent of the total defensive work. The 49ers slowly worked him back into his starting role. Toward the end of the season, something seemed amiss, but last week, Aldon was back to himself, bull-rushing David Bakhtiari. He was effective against the run, and also secured 1 1/2 sacks. His return to form means the 49ers have book-end outside linebackers that can bring pressure. Ahmad Brooks is a sound OLB, who can sometimes be underestimated as a pass rusher. If the 49ers get consistent pressure from those two, even if it doesn't result in sacks, the 49ers can win this game.
Why the Panthers Will Win
For the first time this year, it appears that Carolina's fearsome foursome of Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Cam Newton will all be healthy at once. Jonathan Stewart brings a little of everything that makes Williams and Tolbert great. He's a tremendous power runner with a punishing rush style, but possesses enough speed and quickness to make some great cuts and hit the hole fast. He's a nice presence because he doesn't have a one dimensional run style, and not giving up what kind of run the offense is doing is a big factor in how we run the ball this game. In addition, this time around the offensive line has a bit of continuity and chemistry. The first time these teams met Nate Chandler was still learning his position (to be fair, he still is, but every game has been valuable experience), and our line hadn't seen much consistency other than Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, and Byron Bell. Having a line that has been in the trenches together as long as they have now is a big deal. Carolina's offense overall hasn't been great these past few weeks, but this is the healthiest we've seen them all season.
As far as passing goes, having Steve Smith back in the lineup is huge, no matter how close to 100% he is. He's been a great chain mover, and forces opposing defenses to respect his presence resulting in bracketed coverage to his side often times. The Carolina passing game without him has been downright terrible, as we had to ask for Brandon LaFell to step in as a number one receiver, while Ginn and Hixon alternated. I expect the offense to be a bit more effective with Steve Smith around, as he knows the drill as the best receiver. In addition, Cam Newton's been extremely efficient with the football this season compared to the past. While the stats don't always show it, things like receivers batting balls into the air and receivers not catching passes when they could have has created turnovers. Don't be fooled, Cam has become more patient in the pocket. He's learned that he doesn't have to make EVERY play and that he can trust his team. He's not trying to force plays, and that's a scary element for a player as dynamic as Newton to have. He may not run the ball as much as years past, but when he does he often rips off big gains. The Panthers will likely use his big body to pick up shorter yardage, and not many teams in the NFL can stop it.
I don't think we can say enough how impressive this front seven has been. We have Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson, and Greg Hardy all as returning starters from 2012 and key parts of the defense. However, we've seen three new starters (though Dwan Edwards is a familiar face at under tackle, but he's rotational) come into the mix, and they've been outstanding. At defensive tackle, Start Lotulelei, Kawann Short, and Colin Cole have created one of the most punishing defensive lines in Panther history, while Chase Blackburn has been good when needed in base formations. This defensive front allows the secondary to fly around and make plays, and also force offenses to often throw passes that create turnovers. Having such a good defensive line with two outstanding talents at linebacker is a godsend, and very few teams have gotten the better of this defense. Look for Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to continue to fly around and make stops, while the trench wars will be very interesting. Last time around we were able to get after Colin Kaepernick and force incompletions and sacks. Expect more of the same from a defense that tied the franchise record for most sacks in a season.
In the secondary, a patchwork group of relative nobodies has really stepped up. Mike Mitchell has brought a swagger and physical mentality, as he and Quintin Mikell have punished opposing receivers. Just ask Vernon Davis, he experienced it himself. Captain Munnerlyn and Melvin White will have no easy task covering Boldin and Crabtree, but if they can stay with their receivers and the front seven does its job, expect some bad throws. Look for this secondary to fly around and hit people in a physical and punishing defensive game, with everything on the line.
There's a lot of reasons both teams can win, but obviously only one can. It's going to take more than a pen and paper to decide the winner. Both teams have shown tremendous heart since the start of the season, battling injury and adversity to win. Whichever one of these teams wins, I hope that they run away with the opportunity and bring home a Lombardi. Because damn do they deserve it.