San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers
Kick Off - Sunday, 18:05
Live on Sky Sports 2
I'm going to cut straight to the chase. I've long been convinced that San Francisco rise and fall on the performance of Colin Kaepernick. And I've been equally convinced that the factor which determines how well he plays, is the amount of pressure on the quarterback. So, the biggest question for me in determining who wins this contest is - can the Panthers get after Kaepernick? And the answer to that key question has to be a resounding YES!
First off, the reason I say the Panthers will sink their teeth deep into San Fran's QB is because the Panthers defense harries quarterbacks better than anyone else. Carolina lead the NFL by a country mile when it comes to sacking the quarterback. While most teams have laid hands on their opponent's main man around 30-40 times over the course of the season, the Panthers have achieved it a staggering 60 times, seven times more than their nearest rival. Mark my words, Colin Kaepernick is going to find himself picking himself off the ground on numerous occasions during this game, and running for his life for much of the rest of it.
That also doesn't bode well in the sense that Carolina are among the top teams in the league when it comes to grabbing interceptions. Kaepernick, who remember is still only playing in his second NFL season, and his first as a starter, is going to find himself under an awful lot of pressure, and that spells bad news for a 49ers passing-offense that's ranked third from last in the league.
So that places a lot of responsibility then on San Francisco's third-best ranked running-attack to come up with the goods. The 49ers ground game is rather tasty though. Especially when it comes to making the big plays, with San Fran leading the league for runs of 20 yards or more. Frank Gore will be the man carrying the attack to the Panthers. But the 49ers running game is based not only on Gore, but also on the scrambling ability of their quarterback. And as previously explained, Colin Kaepernick might find it much more difficult than usual to weigh-in with some big running gains. Certainly the Panthers, who rank second in the league at stopping the run, will be ready for him if he tries to break free.
Life isn't set be much easier though for the Carolina offense. Let's face it, they're up against a run-defense ranked fourth in the NFL, and a pass-defense that's ranked fifth. In terms of the stats, in terms of offense and defence, these two teams are incredibly well matched. But the significant difference looks to be the time Carolina quarterback Cam Newton will have on the ball. While Carolina's pass-rush has produced 60 sacks so far, San Francisco's has come up with only 38. And those extra few seconds in the pocket can often prove the difference between victory and defeat at this level. Certainly, good protection of the quarterback was a key factor, if not the most important factor, in Baltimore's Superbowl success of last season. Cam Newton is a top-tier, superstar quarterback. He runs just as well as Kaepernick, and I'd say he has a much better arm. And I think he'll prove in this game that there's a big difference in quality between the two respective QBs.
Carolina look the better team, and that's before taking into account home advantage, which is considerable. The Panther have lost only once in eight games on home turf this season. And that loss was totally forgivable, coming in the first week of the season, and against the Seattle Seahawks. And while the 49ers can boast the best away record in the NFL, their victories came against a motley crew of opponents that included Tampa Bay, Washington, St. Louis, and Jacksonville (twice).
Another crucial piece of form finally, is that Carolina have already beaten the 49ers this season. It was mighty close, by a score of 10-9, but it came in San Francisco and gives the Panthers a psychological edge. Such a low score can be expected once again. After Seattle, these two teams have conceded less points than anyone else in the league. The outcome should be the same though, and see the Panthers go through to the NFC Conference decider.
Back Carolina to win @ 1.991/1
Back Carolina (-1) to win at Half Time @ 2.01/1 or better
Back total points under 41.5 @ 1.9210/11
Back Colin Kaepernick passing yards to be under 220.5 @ 2.01/1 or better