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FOX NFL Game of the Week: Panthers
San Francisco finds itself in familiar territory heading into November. After a stumble out of the gate, the Niners have won five consecutive games to post a 6-2 record in the first half of the season, bringing the team's record to 30-10 under the Jim Harbaugh Era. Such a performance is expected from a squad returning most of its integral components from a Super Bowl appearance in February.
The same cannot be said for the Panthers. Carolina has not made the postseason since 2008, and entered the fall with a 15-33 record in its previous three seasons. After a phenomenal rookie campaign, quarterback Cam Newton was victim to the dreaded sophomore slump in 2012. Worse, little was done to the roster in the offseason, meaning more of the same for the Charlotte faithful.
Or so was envisioned. Instead, Carolina has been a pleasant surprise, racking up a 5-3 mark to insert itself into the playoff race. This unexpected fruition has transformed Week 10's journey to Frisco a must-see affair and serves as the FOX NFL Game of the Week.
Five Things to Watch: Carolina Panthers
Is Carolina legit or lucky?
Although the Panthers sit a game back of the NFC South lead and are slotted for a Wild Card spot, there's doubt Carolina can keep the good times rolling, and with reason. Carolina's victories have come against clubs with a collective 8-33 record. That's what we in the business call “not good.” Certainly the Panthers are not the only team that's been the benefactor of a generous itinerary. Nevertheless, with second-half dates with the Niners, Patriots, Jets and Saints (twice), Carolina will have to earn its way into January.
Spotlight: Panthers defense
The Carolina resistance is surrendering just 13.3 points per game, second-best in the league. Led by reigning Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly, the Panthers have suffocated opposing running games to a meager 79.1 yards per outing, lowest in the conference, and the front seven's pressure has resulted in a plethora of ill-timed throws from quarterbacks. This force has correlated to a field day for the secondary, recording 12 picks against just seven scores. Outside of Kuechly, the unit may lack household names, but it's a group that's given offensive coordinators nightmares.
Matchup Watch: Cam Newton vs. 49ers defense
While the defense's merit will keep the team relevant, Carolina's ultimate destiny lies with Newton. In wins this season, the former Heisman winner has been magnificent, with a 69.1 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. In losses? Not so much, hitting 58 percent of his targets for three trips to pay dirt and five turnovers. Newton has made strides in consistency, accuracy and decision-making this campaign, yet would hardly be described as a sound entity. If he continues this progression, Carolina will be a tough out.
Lining up against Newton will be a Niners defense whose bark matches its bite. Despite a rash of injuries and the sabbatical of Aldon Smith, San Fran is still holding adversaries to 18.1 points per contest, fourth-lowest in the league. The 49ers have been especially stout against the pass, conceding a 57.2 completion percentage (a conference-best) and 221 yards per game (third-lowest in the NFC). With Smith returning to practice this week, this is a unit that is just scratching the surface of its potential.
Newton does have the benefit of a rushing game averaging 130.1 yards per contest (seventh-best in the NFL), but this strength is somewhat negated by San Fran’s defiance on the ground (3.9 yards per attempt, fifth-lowest in the conference). This leaves the victor of the Newton-Niners’ D showdown ultimately deciding the game's outcome.
Steve Smith is still the man
I know it happened a few weeks ago, but I don’t think we’ve properly rehashed the evisceration of Janoris Jenkins at Smith’s hands. I mean, look at these post-game comments:
“He’s just another notch on the bedpost.”
“Well he thinks he’s Deion (Sanders). He’s not.”
“When your dog (urinates) on the carpet, you rub it in his face.”
“I see him in the streets I’m going to bust him in his (expletive) mouth.”
By the way, this is after a Carolina win in which Smith posted 69 yards and a score. Two takeaways from this ordeal:
1) Janoris Jenkins is either the best or worst trash talker in the world
2) Even at age 34, you don’t mess with Steve Smith
The Panthers win if…
Newton posts one of those video game-like days in the box score, the Carolina defense forces Colin Kaepernick into some questionable decisions (not that big of a stretch considering CK’s nine turnovers), someone whispers into Smith’s ear that Patrick Willis was making fun of his family…
Don’t be surprised if Carolina makes a run at the Saints for the NFC South title; alas, I think the trip out West against the barricade of Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Eric Reid and the rest of the Niners defense is too much to overcome.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Panthers 14