The first meeting this season between the 49ers and Panthers was an absolute war of attrition. The two teams combined for just 401 total yards of offense on November 10. Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick were held in check, left to observe a slugfest between the two sides running games.
DeAngelo Williams 27-yard run was the only touchdown of the game as two of the league’s best defenses both came to play and dominated their matchups.
Carolina have home advantage this time, away from the delights of Candlestick Park, but it shouldn’t faze the 49ers who have won 7 of their 9 away games this season.
The 49ers also have a much stronger receiving core to target this time around. Michael Crabtree, who missed the first meeting with the Panthers while recovering from a serious Achilles injury, has 28 receptions for 410 yards and three touchdowns in his last four postseason games.
While Vurnon Davis, who left that contest early with a concussion, has 24 receptions for 583 yards with six TDs in six career postseason contests.
"It's a team game and it's going to take a little bit from everybody," Crabtree said clearly confident of his sides chances by adding… "I think we got those key players."
Luke Keuchly and company will definitely have their hands full come Sunday, but it’s not new to him or his defense. The Panthers defense was second in the NFL with only 301.2 yards and 15.1 points allowed per contest, while topping the league with 60 sacks.
After a sub-standard follow-up to his stellar 2011 rookie season, Cam Newton bounced back in 2013 to set career highs in touchdown passes (24), completion percentage (61.7) and passer rating (88.8) while also rushing for 585 yards and six scores.
He's helped the Panthers win 11 of 12, leading four game-winning drives during that span.
"You don't want to be over-thinking things," Newton said. "I have yet to experience a playoff game, but I know the atmosphere will be hectic to say the least." "I need to be better, not missing throws that I'm capable of making."
Newton also hopes to have his receiver Steve Smith back for the contest after overcoming a knee injury. Smith said Friday that his knee feels ''fine'' and hopes to be ready to play Sunday.
''I will be all right. I should be OK,'' he said.
The environment favors the Panthers, who have won seven straight at Bank of America Stadium since losing there in Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers are coming off a confidence-boosting win over the Green Bay Packers on top of the frozen tundra, but the Packers were hamstrung by injuries on defense.
The challenge will be very different against Carolina.