San Francisco 49ers (13-4) @ Carolina Panthers (12-4), Sunday, 11:05 a.m., FOX
Ugh. Why does this have to be the early game? Besides not being a morning person (and yes, 11 a.m. is technically morning), this game has the potential to completely ruin my chances of enjoying Sunday night’s Broncos-Chargers matchup.
San Francisco goes into Charlotte as the favorite, but that hardly makes this longtime Niner fan confident.
These two tough-as-nails teams are very similar in roster construction and style of play, and went toe-to-toe with each other in the regular season.
Carolina out-Niner’d the Niners when these two teams met at Candlestick in Week 10. The Panthers punished SF, playing more physically and more powerfully in that 10-9 Carolina win.
Neither team looked great on offense. Both quarterbacks completed just 50 percent of their throws while throwing no touchdowns and a pick a piece, and only Frank Gore ran for more than 50 yards.
That offensive output (SF totaled just 151 yards) combined with the change in venue makes it seem like San Fran will have an uphill battle as it vies to make its third straight NFC Championship game.
But the Niner faithful should keep in mind their team nearly beat Carolina without two of its best playmakers.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree had yet to come back from his ACL tear and tight end Vernon Davis left the game for good when he suffered a concussion in the second quarter. That left Colin Kaepernick with Anquan Boldin, Vance McDonald, the guy from the Dos Equis commercials and the faint memory of Jerry Rice as his main targets.
Conversely, the Panthers might not have their No. 1 receiving threat at 100 percent against San Francisco. Wide receiver Steve Smith, who was listed as questionable with a left knee sprain, is expected to play, though it’s anybody’s guess how effective he will be.
Smith, who seems to take life as seriously as most of you take me, said at different points this week that he is 60, 71, 57 and 89 percent healthy.
Of course, Carolina doesn’t need to throw the ball to win. The Panthers owned the 29th-ranked passing offense this season, and, like the 49ers, relied heavily on running and defense.
It’s almost a shame that two of the most exciting, athletic and dynamic quarterbacks are facing two of the league’s most athletic defenses. Carolina allowed the second fewest rushing yards (1391) this season while San Francisco was fourth (1535).
Cam Newton has been amazing this year but I don’t think he has enough help on the outside to light up San Fran’s defense through the air, and the 49er linebackers are too fast to get burned by him on the ground.
This game is close. Real close. But I think ultimately it’s San Francisco’s to lose. The 49ers’ offense has more weapons and their defense should be able to match, if not outperform, it’s Carolina counterpart.
49ers 20, Panthers 16
Jan. 12, 2014 might be the day I suffer my first stroke, but I think it will be during a narrow 49ers victory that sends them to Seattle.
Warning: Unnecessary tangent ahead
Speaking of Seattle, I have very mixed feelings about Seattle’s "12th man." Feelings that would bug me even more if I was a Seahawks fan. As a member of the 12th man, I’d feel incredible that I have helped create an environment that is undoubtedly the least welcoming to opposing NFL teams. On the other hand, I also feel a part of a gimmick that skews my perception of favorite team actual ability.
Everyone knows Seattle is great. But how great?
The Seahawks posted an average points differential (how much they beat their opponent by) of 11.6 points per game, which was second in the league (behind only the Broncos). That mark went up to 15.4 points per game at home while falling to 7.9 points on the road. That means playing at CenturyLink Field was good for another 7.5 points in Seattle’s favor, whether it was points the Seahawks scored themselves, or points the opponent was unable to score. Of course, more plays into home-field advantage besides the volume of fans, but the extra touchdown that the city of Seattle provides would make me wonder, are the Seahawks that good?
Seattle beat just three times on the road by more than a touchdown. Those teams were the Cardinals (11-5), Falcons (4-12) and Giants (7-9). So the Seahawks blew out two below-average teams and the Cardinals, who later beat them in Seattle in Week 16.
On to the night game!
San Diego Chargers (10-7) @ Denver Broncos (13-3), Sunday, 2:40 p.m., CBS
Like the Pats-Colts game, this AFC matchup is attracting a lot of “upset alerts!” from fans and analysts around the football world.
I’m not buying it.
Peyton Manning is having a career year at 38, and though we’ve seen the great regular season come to an abrupt end in January before, I have to believe he lives to face Brady yet again.
San Diego beat Cincinnati in last week’s Wild Card game during one of Andy Dalton’s perplexing “Mr. Hyde” performances. Dalton completed 57 percent of his passes for 334 yards (an impressive total number, though his 6.55 yards per attempt figure would have placed him right behind Terrelle Pryor at 28th overall this season), one score and two interceptions.
Yeah, don’t expect Peyton Manning to beat himself like Dalton did.
Manning should have a field day against this San Diego defense. With two full weeks to prepare, Sunday’s high winds (predicted near 20 mph) will provide Manning with more of a challenge than the Chargers, who were the fourth-worst in the league at stopping the pass.
In two games this season Manning threw for 619 yards, six TDs and one INT against the Chargers. Of course, that lone pick came in a 27-20 San Diego win in Denver, which is the first of three facts San Diego fans can hang their hope on.
The other two: 1) The Chargers scored 27 points on a very good defense last week in Cincy. 2) The Broncos do not have a very good defense.
Denver allowed just 69 fewer passing yards than SD this season and gave up six more passing scores. Champ Bailey is far from what he used to be and isn’t likely be tasked with stopping Keenan Allen, San Diego’s sensational rookie wideout.
If the weather doesn’t play too much of a factor, a lot of points should be scored in this game.
Who I think wins comes down to this question: Who do I trust?
Manning, his unquestionable drive and remarkable bin of offensive toys, or Philip Rivers, a man who is getting more press for his post-game style than his on-field play?
Remember, Rivers passed the ball only16 times last week because San Diego was able to run well against the Bengals. The same tactic won’t be employed in Denver if the Broncos’ explosive offense gets out to a quick multi-score lead.
Rivers’ bolo tie might help him fit in with some Coloradans, but I expect him to be sent back to the west coast after the Chargers are finally dispatched from a postseason they barely deserved to play in.
Broncos 34, Chargers 31