When I think about tomorrow's divisional playoff matchup between the 49ers and the Panthers, I have to wonder, is it possible for both teams to lose? It isn't, of course, which means this game is a no-win situation for Falcons fans. It's nearly impossible to root for the Panthers, a current division rival, or the Niners, a former division rival that also has the distinction of beating the Falcons in last year's NFC Championship Game. This game, in short, is a nightmare.
That said, with the inherent familiarity we have with other NFC South teams, it's easier to explain how the Niners can beat the Panthers on Sunday than vice versa, so that's what we're going to do.
One of the issues teams have to account for when taking on the Panthers is Cam Newton. He's big, he's a strong runner, and he can be hard to stop. The 49ers have been stout against the run all season, and shutting down the Panthers' ability to move the ball on the ground and forcing Newton to throw would be very beneficial.
Newton has seemed to have a more difficult time getting the passing game going with Steve Smith injured. It's possible that Smith will be active for the game against the Niners, but after missing so much time, it's likely he won't be 100%, which could be a huge factor for Carolina. It's easier for the Niners to cover Greg Olsen, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn if they don't have worry about Smith quite so much.
The Panthers haven't won twelve games this season on the strength of their passing offense, anyway. The Panthers finished the season ranked 29th in passing offense and 18th in scoring offense. The Panthers finished the 2013 season ranked 11th in rushing offense, but the Niners finished the season ranked fourth in the league against the run. As long as the Niners' stout front seven can limit Carolina's effectiveness on the ground, they should be in pretty good shape.
Carolina's defense is their strength. They finished the 2013 season ranked second against the run, second in scoring defense, and sixth against the pass. The Panthers have a relentless pass rush. Matt Ryan can probably tell you all about it, because they sacked him nine times in the last game of the season.
The 49ers have a much better offensive line than Atlanta's. They've allowed 30 sacks, 18 hits and 113 hurries on Colin Kaepernick, per Pro Football Focus. The Falcons allowed 40 sacks, 41 hits, and 208 hurries on Ryan, as a point of comparison. The Niners will need to hold the Panthers front seven at bay and establish an adequate rushing effort.
It's easier said than done, establishing a ground game against the Panthers, but the 49ers do have one of the more potent rushing attacks in the league. San Francisco finished the season ranked third in the league for rushing yards per game. The last time these two teams met, the Niners lost, but did put up 105 yards on the ground, well over the 86.9 yards per game average that Carolina allowed this season.
What are your tips for the Niners to beat the Panthers? And, many of our longtime fans harbor much more animosity tow