Cam Newton makes his playoff debut as the Carolina Panthers host the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday afternoon’s NFC Divisional Round playoff game at Bank of America Stadium.
Despite beating San Francisco 10-9 while holding quarterback Colin Kaepernick to 91 yards passing and sacking him six times in Week 10, Carolina enters its first home playoff game in five years as three-point underdogs.
The winner advances to play the mighty Seattle Seahawks next week in the NFC Championship.
Completing a career-high 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,379 yards and 24 touchdowns, Newton put together another solid year while relying on the league’s second-ranked defense and best pass rushing crew.
The Panthers sacked opposing quarterbacks an NFL-best 60 times this season, and held opponents to 301.3 total yards per game. The Panthers also won their first division crown in five years, earning a week off to rest.
The Niners enter the matchup as one of the hottest teams left in the postseason after closing out the regular season with six straight wins, and adding another in last week’s narrow 23-20 victory over Green Bay at Lambeau.
Kaepernick once again lit up the Packers for 227 yards passing and another 98 yards on the ground, and the 49ers defense held Green Bay to a 3-for-11 third down rate and 281 total yards offense. The third-year passer Kaepernick upped his early postseason career record to 3-1, and he’s averaging a 93.9 passer rating with 9.32 yards per pass attempt.
Linebacker Aldon Smith notched 1.5 sacks, leading a 49ers pass rush that nailed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers four times for a loss of 20 yards. However, they’ll face a Carolina offensive line that let up 43 sacks all season, and a more careful Newton who’s cut down his rushing attempts.
Carolina’s sixth ranked secondary could force Kaepernick into mistakes early. The Panthers forced 20 interceptions this season, and were fourth in the NFC with a plus-11 takeaway ratio.
Newton’s top targets all year have been tight end Greg Olsen and veteran receiver Steve Smith, who combined for 10 total touchdowns.
Smith has played coy with the media about his game status throughout the season, but as of now he’s listed as questionable on the Panthers injury report with a knee injury. Defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) and running back Johnathan Stewart (knee) are also listed as questionable.
Both teams first string running backs could be the key matchup to watch. San Francisco’s Frank Gore was limited to 66 yards against Green Bay, but did reach the end zone. In last season’s run to the Super Bowl Gore scored four touchdowns and averaged 106.3 yards per game, picking up 5.0 yards per carry.
Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams isn’t nearly as battle tested as Gore with one career playoff start. Back in 2008 he gained 63 yards and scored one touchdown in a 33-13 loss to Arizona.
San Francisco could miss corner back Carlos Rogers (hamstring) for a second straight week, along with linebacker Dan Skuta (foot), who are both questionable. Skuta did fully participate in practice all week, a good sign that should provide some needed depth behind Aldon Smith.
Betting Odds: San Francisco -3
Over/Under: 42 points
Time: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Live Online Stream Info: Fox Sports Go here for xfinity, Midcontinent, AT&T U-verse, and Optimum, Sudden Link, Wow subscribers. Others must watch on TV.
Prediction: Carolina 20, San Francisco 17