Just like the last matchup, this is expected to be a physical defensive confrontation and beating the NFL odds on this one will not be an easy decision.
San Francisco Offense vs. Carolina Defense
The 49ers average 139 yards a game rushing and the Panthers allow just 87 yards on the ground, thus playing the averages with these two teams, San Francisco should be right around 113 yards rushing for this game. In all likelihood, you would not want to risk making a NFL pick on the Niners if this where they end up for running yards. (4-3 SU when have run for 113 or less yards)
If San Francisco is going to advance to the next round, they will either have to surpass that figure (9-1 SU when they do) or find answers in the passing game.
This could be possible with Michael Crabtree back in the lineup to assist Colin Kaepernick. When these teams met in the early part of November, Carolina double-teamed Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin and the Niners quarterback had nowhere to turn with Crabtree still recovering from a torn Achilles. On that day, Kaepernick was harassed all game and ended up with 46, that’s right, 46 yards passing.
Since Crabtree has returned, NFL football handicappers like myself have witnessed the trust factor between these two players. Teams can no longer double two San Fran receivers and though Carolina plays a lot of zone coverage, both Crabtree and Boldin are savvy receivers who can find the dead spots.
The Panthers will imply the same skills which have worked for them all season. Their domineering defensive line got the better of San Francisco O-Line the past time and the athletic linebackers kept everything in check.
On the presumption Kaepernick receives protection often enough, the Panthers safeties can be beaten and Davis will be the long ball threat.
NFL Football Playoffs Edge – San Francisco by 3.5 points
Carolina Offense vs. San Francisco Defense
While Crabtree in extremely important in this game, the most important pass catcher in this contest is Steve Smith. The veteran receiver returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since spraining his knee on Dec. 22 and said he felt “pretty good” and had no significant pain.
His value to Cam Newton is summed up in Carolina’s last contest against Atlanta. The Panthers struggled on offense all day, with Newton throwing for just 149 yards. Looking inside the numbers I found Carolina wideouts had just four catches for 22 yards. The passing attack was so anemic, just over half of the ‘Cats passing yards (75) came on a screen pass to DeAngelo Hall.
Similar to San Francisco, coach Ron Rivera’s club is not going to pound away at the Niners defensive front and expect to find success. Instead, it will have to be a balance of running and passing and not being predictable on any particular down to keep the 49ers defense guessing and not allowing them to dictate tempo.
Jim Harbaugh’s defense has to not allow Newton to have success running, because field position would seem to be very precious. They will also need Aldon Smith to be a disruptive force and not allow Newton to feel comfortable enough to set his feet.
NFL Football Playoffs Edge – San Francisco by 1 point
Understanding the Intangibles
Carolina was 7-1 and 6-1-1 ATS at home this year, but sportsbooks tend to take the longer view and know this is the Panthers first winning home campaign since 2009 and awards them 2.5 points for being playing in downtown Charlotte.
By all appearances, San Francisco is the more complete team, but they have lost four straight to Carolina, who in turn has the mental edge in this matchup.
When making sports picks, this is a very difficult call because these two teams are so alike. Though it is clichéd, it could but down to turnovers and if look at each team’s last seven games played, San Fran is +5 in turnover margin and Carolina is +3. One mistake could change the outcome.
NFL Football Playoffs Edge – Carolina by 2.5 points
NFL Pick – San Francisco by 2 points