Greg Olsen vs. Patrick Willis/Navorro Bowman/Donte Whitner
It's pretty easy to see that Greg Olsen is currently Carolina's most consistent receiving target. Setting a career high in receptions this season at 73, Olsen really needs to continue to be Cam's security blanket with Steve Smith hobbled and inconsistencies at receiver behind him. Ben Hartsock and Richie Brockel are primarily used as blockers, so that leaves tight end Greg Olsen as Carolina's best option. Which, unfortunately, plays to the strengths of the 49er defense.
It's really semantics at this point to argue which linebacker duo is better as far as Carolina and San Francisco go, they easily have the two best duos in the NFL right now. Luke Kuechly and Patrick Willis represent the top two inside linebackers in the league, while Thomas Davis and Navorro Bowman are two freak athletes with incredible instincts as well. Greg Olsen is primarily a receiving tight end, but Bowman and Willis have contained better players. It's going to depend on whether Cam has time in the pocket of course, but Olsen needs to continue his consistency he's shown all year. He's been great at getting open on 3rd down, and he's been awesome inside the red zone. Look for Carolina to try to get him the ball early, and often.
Jordan Gross vs. Aldon Smith
Aldon Smith is exactly the kind of linebacker you DON'T want getting after Cam Newton. Aldon Smith is big, and he's fast. He can bring Cam Newton down by himself, something not many outside linebackers can say. Thankfully, Aldon Smith will match up against Jordan Gross, who has been as good as ever protecting Cam's blindside. But this will be no easy task. The last time these teams met, the 49ers got a fair amount of pass rush on Cam essentially without Aldon Smith. Smith only played about 12 snaps last time, where he's now fully conditioned, fully healthy, and fully in the lineup. In addition, Gross likely won't have much help against Smith with Ahmad Brooks rushing Byron Bell again. Last game, Ahmad Brooks victimized Bell, so Carolina will likely try to get tight end or running back help blocking Brooks. It will certainly be interesting to see how Gross fairs against Smith, who is becoming one of the best outside rushing linebackers in the league today.
Mike Tolbert vs. Patrick Willis
Congratulations readers, this is the first time I've ever used the same player twice in a key matchups evaluation. Patrick Willis already called me to tell me how honored he was to be a part of CatScratch Reader history. And you all should be honored too!
Mike Tolbert will likely be a lot more involved this time around. He's Carolina's best receiving back, and he's also our best option for a power rushing attack. The 49ers athletic and physical front seven makes it near impossible for a running back to hit a hole untouched, so Tolbert will likely be used for most of the short yardage situations. He's been a great swiss army knife for the Panthers, and he'll need to be involved and rushing well for the running game to get off the ground. Willis and Bowman however are two of the best tackling linebackers in the league, and will be watching the run. Carolina will need a good push up front and some decisive running by the backs to get the run game going.
Some Closing Remarks
Well Panthers fans, it all comes down to this as I sign off with my last article of the week. I haven't been this nervous, this anxious, and this pumped simultaneously since the 2008 Cardinals game. It's nostalgic, really. We haven't been relevant, we weren't winning games, and we kind of lost the Cardiac Cats identity that brought us so much success in the early 2000s. This game means so much to us, the fan base, because it will usher in a new era, win or lose. We've battled through a two win season, we've watched our team unfold without a good quarterback. We've watched this team draft a potential franchise quarterback, and watched him grow. Many of us have grown with him. We've been humbled by nearly five years of irrelevance. Until now. We've battled and clawed our way into the playoffs this season, something that many of us didn't even think possible after four weeks this season. It's truly an accomplishment just to be participating in this game.
Basically, my point is this: We've come so far as a team, as a fanbase. For those of you who stuck with us during the difficult times, we appreciate it. We've won some respect, but there's much more to earn here at the plate. So for any Panthers fan going to the game, yell and scream your heart out. For Panthers fans watching at home, do the same. This opportunity hasn't been given to us in quite some time, and it's important to remember how far we've come. Win or lose, try to remember that. This team has been amazing this season, but there's still plenty of time for us in the future as well. We've come so far, and it's important to remember this. What hole we've dug ourselves out of, what a bright future ahead. Only the players and coaches can decide whether or not to seize this opportunity. But it's our time. Now, and in the future here in the Carolinas. So win or lose, let's make this season a memorable one. Because Rome wasn't built in one day, but this team is at the front door to greatness. Fortune may not smile on us tomorrow. We all want to win, but only one team can. So regardless of whether we make it to the promised land now, or tomorrow, let us always remember the 2013 Carolina Panthers as the second coming of the Cardiac Cats, and the team that jump started a winning culture. Keep Pounding my friends, and good luck to the 49ers and their fans.