NFL Playoff Preview: San Francisco-Carolina

The San Francisco-Carolina game is, at least according to the oddsmakers, the best matchup of the four games going in this second round of the NFL playoffs. The kickoff is Sunday at 1 PM ET, with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the call for Fox, and here’s the Notebook Nine points to take into the game, drawn from history, Las Vegas and the personnel matchups…

    • *San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is gunning to be the first coach to reach a conference championship game in each of his first three years as head coach. Dallas’ Barry Switzer also started his NFL career 2-for-2, although unlike Harbaugh, Switzer inherited a Super Bowl team from Jimmy Johnson back in 1994.

    • The 49ers are the only road favorite of the weekend, and the 1-point spread is the only one of this round that’s under seven points. Oddsmakers further see a low-scoring game in the cards, with the Over/Under of 41 projecting out to a 21-20 win for San Francisco. The previous meeting between Carolina and San Francisco ended 10-9 for the Panthers. That explains the low total, if not San Fran now being a road favorite after losing at home.
    • *Carolina’s defense is their calling card, ranking second in the NFL in points allowed, and its sacks that are the engine driving the success. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are a dominant pass rushing duo coming on both ends of the 4-3 scheme. This strength goes head-on against the supremely mobile San Francisco quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
    • *The Achilles heel of the Panther defense is that they give up a high percentage of completions, ranking 30th in the league. This again goes head-on against San Francisco. Kaepernick is a low-percentage passer who makes up for it with big plays.
    • *Carolina’s offense is mediocre by any standard, and at 18th in the league in points scored, is easily the worst of the eight teams left on the board. The Panthers are average in most statistical categories, and being 17th in sacks allowed is a big alarm bell when you a quarterback both strong and mobile in Cam Newton. Now they face a defense that ranks in the NFL’s upper third in every key statistical category.
    • *The flip side to the above point is this—you’re not going to take chances offensively when you play defense as well as Carolina does, and that’s going to mean fewer points scored. What matters, of course, is scoring when you need to. Newton has led big-time drives to beat the New England Patriots on a Monday Night, and the New Orleans Saints in a battle for the NFC South title.

  • *Carolina takes good care of the ball, but have they been lucky or good? The Panthers rank much higher in not losing fumbles then they do in avoiding interceptions. This is not to say Newton has been a turnover machine—he clearly has not—but the success in recovering their own fumbles has been a much bigger part of Carolina’s low giveaways. Is this just luck, or is it a sign of their hustle and alertness? If it’s luck, should we assume the magic at least holds through this season?
  • *If this game plays out as a tough, defensive affair and both teams try and establish the run, that’s going to make third downs, especially those with manageable distances from 3-6 yards, even bigger than normal. That in turn points to the tight ends. Carolina TE Greg Olsen is one of their most productive pass catchers. His San Francisco counterpart, Vernon Davis, was held to one catch for two yards when the teams played earlier. Davis dealt with injuries in midseason though, and is healthy now.
  • *The next part of the story is wondering which team’s wideouts can make the one or two big plays that can swing a close, lower-scoring game. Steve Smith is going to play for Carolina, but the health of his knee is questionable, and that’s being kind. On the other side of the ball, it’s San Francisco who has the medical problems, with Carlos Rodgers being questionable at corner. The 49ers do have fellow corner Eric Wright back healthy after a hamstring injury limited his snaps in last week’s win at Green Bay.

I’m picking Carolina to get the win in a game that I expect to otherwise play out as the oddsmakers say out—tight and low-scoring, and if we do get a lot of points, it will be defenses setting them up. The Panthers are my pick to win the Super Bowl, and they’re getting nice 10-1 odds to do it.