Two months ago, the Carolina Panthers made sure the rest of the NFL world was paying attention to them by edging San Francisco, 10-9, on the road at Candlestick Park.
Now to advance in the playoffs, the Panthers will have to repeat that victory. The 49ers will come to Charlotte next weekend for a sold-out 1 p.m. playoff game at Bank of America Stadium to face the Panthers in the NFC playoffs. The winner will face the New Orleans-Seattle winner Saturday in the NFC title game on Jan.19th. If New Orleans and the Panthers win, the game would be played in Charlotte. If Seattle wins, the Seahawks will host that game, regardless of whether Carolina or the 49ers win.
The 49ers had to beat Green Bay, 23-20, on a last-second Phil Dawson field goal Sunday night to punch a ticket to CLT. (Nevertheless, that win was impressive enough that the 49ers are now the only road team that is a consensus favorite among sportsbooks this week -- they are favored in most by a point or two over Carolina). San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick had a big fourth quarter, running the ball for major yardage when he had to (he ended up with 98 yards rushing) and hitting tight end Vernon Davis with a 28-yard TD strike to offset Aaron Rodgers' own set of big plays.
The teams looked very evenly matched, and while I went into the game thinking the Packers would be a far better matchup for Carolina, by the third quarter I had decided it didn't matter much. Both of them would present their own set of problems for a Panther team that had a hard-earned weekend off and will now try to avoid the repeat of the playoff debacle five years ago at home against Arizona in Jake Delhomme's six-turnover fiasco.
A few things to consider as we start sinking our teeth into Panthers-49ers, Round 2:
-- Carolina will never allow Kaepernick to have that much time in the pocket, because the Panthers' pass rush is so much better than Green Bay's. Greg Hardy (above) has been almost unblockable in his past two games and will be a huge key.
-- Kaepernick -- who threw for only 91 yards last time and was sacked six times for 45 yards in losses, resulting in a paltry 46 net yards passing -- will have more weaponry. He didn't have Michael Crabtree the first time the two teams played (who Jim Harbaugh called "the greatest catcher" ever following the win). Kaep also lost Davis to a concussion in the second quarter. He did have Frank Gore, who will be a tough out for the Panthers once again.
-- After a slow start, Rodgers and Green Bay moved the ball pretty effectively against San Francisco. Quarterback Cam Newton will have some work to do, but if he gets Steve Smith back, he probably can generate more than 10 points as he did in the first game and definitely will need to do so.
-- Panther cornerback Drayton Florence has gotten the defensive backs and, eventually, the whole team doing the old Ric Flair "Wooooo!" after wins. But Flair, a Charlotte resident, gave a speech to the 49ers Saturday night, said he was a big 49ers fan and then predicted San Francisco would beat both Green Bay and then Carolina. (Flair also said during the speech he didn't know that the Panthers had beaten the 49ers earlier in the season until very recently, so it's not like he keeps up with the NFL.) In any event, probably safe to say we won't see Flair back on the B of A stadium scoreboard that he long ago used to appear on regularly anytime soon.
-- The 49ers looked to come out of the game without too many health issues, other than being very cold. The early forecast for next Sunday at 1 p.m. in Charlotte will be a lot different than it was in Green Bay, with a high of 56 degrees and a 30 percent chance of rain. Think about that when it gets down into the single digits Monday -- warmer weather is around the bend.
-- Lastly, remember this picture? Our Joseph Person snapped it when Stephen Curry -- another famous Charlotte resident when he's not hitting treys for Golden State -- visited the Panther locker room following the Panthers' victory over the 49ers Nov.10th. Safe to say that Steph won't be giving any motivational speeches to the 49ers this week.