If a wild-card team has ever been a favorite to win the Super Bowl, the 2013-2014 San Francisco 49ers are that team. At 12-4, they are tied with two other teams for the third-best record in football and have won seven straight games including the opening round playoff game against a Super Bowl worthy Green Bay Packers in Green Bay.
Should 26-year-old sophomore quarterback Colin Kaepernick lead his team to a second straight Super Bowl appearance, never mind win it all, they will have to do it away from home in several very hostile territories.
After surviving Lambeau Field, the next stop is Charlotte, North Carolina to face the NFC South division winners Carolina Panthers. The Panthers and 49ers finished the season with identical 12-4 records and played one game in the regular season against each other at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
The Week 10 showdown between the two clubs saw four quarters of low-scoring, physical and demanding football with Carolina edging San Francisco 10-9. Kaepernick had, by far, his worst game of the season in that game, arguably the worst of his career. He was held to 91 passing yards, 16 rushing yards, 0 touchdowns and an interception — a far cry from his nearly 200 yards per game passing average and 33 yards per game on the ground.
The Panthers should be able to inflict similar misery on Kaepernick this weekend, as their Week 10 victory wasn’t an anomaly. They allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL this season, as well as the sixth-fewest passing yards. They had an 11-1 record after a 1-3 start. They allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL this season, behind only the Seattle Seahawks.
In reality, this team is built almost exactly like the 49ers — a physical QB capable of running and passing, backed by a top-five defense. And thanks to their Week 10 win over the 49ers, they will have home-field advantage in a contest to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Containing Kaepernick will start with the Panthers’ group of middle linebackers — led by 22-year-old Luke Kuechly. The Panthers’ defense combined for six sacks on Kaepernick and didn’t allow him to complete a pass longer than 10 yards. If they bring similar aggression to aggravating the young QB, it could be an early exit for the 49ers.
Relying on running back Frank Gore to lead the team on the ground is a usual safe bet for San Francisco, and he was able to accrue 82 yards on 16 carries in that Week 10 loss — but that number is a tad deceptive as Carolina focused their efforts, wisely, on hampering Kaepernick.
The Panthers weren’t expected to be one of the NFL’s top teams this year, but a dive into the numbers might reveal that they deserve more respect than arguably any other team in the NFL this year. Consider: 138-116-2. That was the Panthers’ opponents’ collective record this year, which was the most difficult strength of schedule any team in the NFL had to face. Furthermore, the Panthers found success in 2013 by protecting their home field; they were a remarkable 7-1 at Bank of America stadium.
However, the 49ers are among the better road teams in the NFL. If you count the playoffs, they are 7-2 on the road after beating the Green Bay Packers 23-20 on Sunday at Lambeau Field, one of the least desirable road stadiums in the game.
The 49ers do have the edge in this matchup, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the Panthers aren’t playoff-tested — a vulnerability especially severe for starting QB Cam Newton. Newton is making his first playoff appearance and will be thrown right into the deep end. Like Kaepernick, Newton will have to face one of the best linebacker cores in the game. The 49ers’ double-threat of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis can disrupt any quarterback’s game-plan at anytime. Newton struggled against the 49ers in Week 10, completing only 16 passes for 169 yards, with 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. And we’re it not for one heroic 27-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown run from DeAngelo Williams; the Panthers’ would have likely gone home losers.
If the 49ers advance, they will continue life on the road against the winner of the New Orleans Saints/Seattle Seahawks game this weekend. And if they make it all the way to the Super Bowl, they’ll be playing in New Jersey at MetLife Stadium. So the luxuries of playing at home will have to wait until the 2014-2015 season opens when they begin play at their new stadium in Santa Clara (currently under construction). By then, they should be used to not feeling at home. But it won’t matter a bit if they have a Super Bowl XLVIII Trophy to place in the newly minted stadium.