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FOX NFL Game of the Week: 49ers
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: San Francisco 49ers
Spotlight: Colin Kaepernick
To reach the Meadowlands in February, the Niners will need a steady presence from Colin Kaepernick under center. Since lighting up the Packers in the season opener, the Nevada product has been far from impressive, connecting on 54 percent of his passes and has as many turnovers as touchdowns (nine apiece). Kaepernick's depleted receiving crew is slowly nearing a return to health, and the Niners offense has been a beast on the terrain (more on this in a second). Alas, as Kaepernick goes, so goes the Niners, and unless the third-year arm eliminates some of his erratic tendencies, San Fran remains vulnerable.
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 strong 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.
Can Frank Gore and company keep Newton on the sidelines?
It seems like we’ve been waiting for the mileage to take its toll on the venerable Niners back, but Gore keeps on trucking, literally and figuratively. Following an inauspicious onset (30 carries, 60 yards in the first two games of 2013), Gore has reverted to his usual destruction on the ground, averaging 93 yards per outing with six trips to pay dirt in the past six contests. This production has been the catalyst for San Francisco’s NFL-best 153 rushing yards per game.
The Niners are more than up to the challenge of confronting Newton, but keeping the defensive unit rested and limiting the Carolina QB’s opportunities will go a ways to a San Francisco conquest.
It’s time we talk about that Jim Harbaugh commercial
Sorry, there’s nothing funny about this madman being around children. I’m not even a father, but just the idea of Harbaugh's Sergeant Hartman routine around America’s youth keeps me up at night.
Now, if you really wanted a comical commercial, bring in Greg Schiano, with shots of the maligned Tampa coach rigging the “Capri Sun or Juicy Juice?” vote, alienating his star 10-year-old quarterback/linebacker and starting his own, less-talented kids over the better athletes from the previous reign because they’re not “Schiano Offspring.” You’re welcome, Visa.
The 49ers win if…
Kaepernick keeps the turnovers to a minimum, Gore continues his dexterity, Newton has one of those games where we immediately question his heart even though we just spent the last month trumpeting his maturation…
Don’t be surprised if Carolina makes a run at the Saints for the NFC South title; unfortunately, I think the trip out West against the barricade of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Eric Reid and the rest of the Niners defense is too much to overcome.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Panthers 14