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Division Preview: San Francisco at Carolina

At least 400 total yards were gained in every game this season. When Nick Foles threw 7 touchdowns against the Raiders, Oakland actually out-gained Philadelphia, and the two teams combined for a season-high 1,102 yards that day. On the other end of the spectrum was San Francisco/Carolina I, when the two teams combined for just 401 yards. That first game was essentially the NFL’s version of LSU/Alabama, and I don’t think the rematch will be very different.

When these two teams take the field on Sunday, the opponent will feel familiar for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is because of the week ten match-up. But these teams are also mirror images of each other. Consider:

Kuechly and Kaepernick are just two of the many stars in this game

Kuechly and Kaepernick are just two of the many stars in this game.

  • Each team is led by a young quarterback with a rocket arm and an unfair amount of athleticism. Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton might be the two best running quarterbacks in the league, at least until Robert Griffin III fully recovers, but both are more than capable passers, too. Over the last two years, Kaepernick and Newton rank 4th and 6th in yards per attempt among all quarterbacks with 600 pass attempts.
  • Only three running backs in 2013 were 30 years or older and rushed for at least 800 yards. Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams, and Fred Jackson.
  • Only four teams gave 500 snaps to fullbacks this year: Carolina, with Mike Tolbert and Richie Brockel, and San Francisco (with Will Tukuafu taking over after the season-ending injury to Bruce Miller) were two of those teams.
  • Among wide receivers age 33 and older, the two leaders in receiving yards in 2013 were Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith.
  • Over the last two seasons, Vernon Davis is second in receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Over the last two seasons, Greg Olsen is fourth in both receptions and receiving yards by a tight end.
  • Each team has a dominant edge rusher that attacks the quarterback’s blind side. San Francisco’s Aldon Smith and Carolina’s Greg Hardy both rank in the top five in sacks from 2012-2013. But both teams bring pressure from the other side, too: Ahmad Brooks had 8.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl for San Francisco, while Charles Johnson picked up 11.0 sacks for Carolina.
  • There’s a whole lot of beef in the middle, too. For San Francisco, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, and a revitalized Glenn Dorsey clog up running lanes and tie up blockers for Smith and Brooks. For the Panthers, the drafting of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short provided the starkest contrast between this year’s team compared to the 2012 edition.
  • Despite a wealth of talent just described in the front 7, the stars of both defenses are undoubtedly the inside linebackers. This is where one area where 49ers have an edge, if only because they have two of them. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Luke Kuechly have all been legitimate defensive player of the year candidates at some point in the last two years.

In fact, these teams are so similar that it probably makes more sense to just focus on the differences. I see three big ones, and all point in one direction.

The third weapon: Each team boasts a great combination at wide receiver and tight end, but the 49ers played most of the season without Michael Crabtree. Now that the greatest catcher is back, the 49ers now have the passing advantage. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn can’t compare to Crabtree, who at times appears to be the best player on the field. And while the Panthers beat the 49ers in the regular season, the San Francisco passing offense was without not just Crabtree, but Davis, who missed most of the game with a concussion.

The Secondary: Just because the words came out of Santonio Holmes’ mouth doesn’t make them false: the Panthers secondary is the team’s weak spot. That doesn’t mean it’s bad — cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn, Melvin White and Drayton Florence are probably average players at their respective positions, and safeties Michael Mitchell and Quintin Mikell both have their good days. But the group will have their hands full trying to shut down Boldin, Davis and Crabtree while also loading the box to stop Gore and Kaepernick. The first time around, none of San Francisco’s final 12 drives went more than 17 yards. Regression to the mean will prevent that from happening again, but the absence of Davis and Crabtree was a significant factor in week ten.

The 49ers secondary is better on paper, although injuries have depleted the unit. The best cover corner, Chris Culliver, missed the entire season with a torn ACL, while Carlos Rogers is questionable for Sunday with the hamstring injury that caused him to miss the game against Green Bay.

But even if Rogers can’t play, Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock (with Perrish Cox at nickel) still give the 49ers a pair of solid cornerbacks. If Rogers can play, I suspect he can hold his own against a similarly gimpy Steve Smith, leaving Brown and Brock to contend with LaFell and Ginn. The other big advantage for the 49ers is at safety: Donte Whitner and Eric Reid have both lived up to their first round billing.

Coaching: Despite the joy of watching Ron Rivera morph into Riverboat Ron, the advantage here still belongs to Jim Harbaugh. Both coaches have made some excellent 4th down decisions this year: Carolina went 10 of 13, while the 49ers hit on 7 of 11 tries. But Harbaugh may be the 2nd best coach in the NFL and has proven his playoff mettle, which gives the team the coaching advantage – for now.

To be fair, as Bill Barnwell pointed out, it was Harbaugh’s conservative coaching that arguably swung the first game: already up 6-0, he chose to kick a field goal on 4th-and-1 at the two yard line, and the 49ers ultimately lost 10-9. Still, I have more faith in Harbaugh in a close game than I do Rivera. In fact, as much as I have enjoyed the 2013 season of Riverboat Ron, it wouldn’t surprise me if he reverted to his 2012 ways with the stakes at their highest.

Prediction: San Francisco 20, Carolina 17