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By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Given their status as defending conference champions, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera noted that the San Francisco 49ers are the measuring stick of the NFC.
If that is the case, Rivera's Panthers have to feel pretty good about this Sunday's divisional round matchup at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers have won four straight and eight of their last 10 overall against the 49ers, though this contest will mark the first between the clubs in the playoffs.
Still, Carolina owns two wins at home and on the road during this series winning streak and outlasted the Niners 10-9 in a defensive struggle in San Francisco back on Nov. 10.
The two teams combined for just 401 total yards and went 9-for-30 on 3rd-down attempts. There was also a total of 10 sacks in the game, six for Carolina, and each team had two turnovers.
It was a predictable style of football given the Panthers finished this season ranked second in the NFL in total defense, run defense and points allowed per game, and sixth versus the pass.
The 49ers were just as solid, ranking fifth in total defense, fourth against the run, seventh versus the pass and third in points allowed.
That win for the Panthers came during an eight-game win streak as Carolina won 11 of 12 after starting the season 1-3 to win the NFC South for the fourth time. It wasn't easy, though, and Carolina still needed a 21-20 road win over Atlanta in Week 17 to wrap up the division and get a first-round bye.
"For reasons we all know, having home-field advantage is very exciting," said Panthers Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton. "We're going to need our fans more than anything. I don't think our fans get a lot of credit for the support that they give us.
"We're hopefully going to put up a good performance."
The locals have reason to be excited about this team under Rivera, who has improved the club to records of 6-10, 7-9 and then 12-4 this season following a 2-14 mark in 2010. That has Carolina back in the postseason for the first time since 2008.
"When I got here (in 2011), I told the guys what the vision was ... the vision to win Super Bowls. That's how I feel," said Rivera. "I think we have the beginnings of a good football team. I think we've done some really good things and put ourselves in position to be where we are. This is not an accident."
They bye paid off in the injury department as both wide receiver Steve Smith and running back Jonathan Stewart -- two of just nine players left from the '08 playoff team -- are ready to return from injury.
Smith missed Week 17 with a knee injury, while Stewart stat out the final four games of the regular season with a knee issue after missing the first seven contests of the season because of a foot injury.
Despite matching Carolina's 12-4 record in the regular season, the Niners entered the postseason as a wild card club and needed to best the hosting Green Bay Packers 23-20 last Sunday to advance.
In the bitter cold, the 49ers rallied from four points down in the fourth quarter to go ahead on Colin Kaepernick's 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis early in the frame.
Green Bay got a game-tying field goal from Mason Crosby with 5:06 to play, but Phil Dawson booted San Francisco into the next round with a 33-yard field goal as time expired.
"It is right now," Dawson said when asked if it was the biggest kick of his 15-year career. "I've waited a long time to win a playoff game."
Kaepernick used his arm and legs to beat the Packers, throwing for 227 yards and rushing for another 98 yards on seven carries.
"It was amazing to get the win today," Kaepernick said. "We came back, we fought, we played hard."
With the victory, the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh became the first coach to win 13-or- more games, including the playoffs, in his first three seasons since the 1970 merger.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
As is the case with most NFL games, a lot of focus will be on the quarterbacks and this matchup features two players drafted in 2011 with some similar tendencies.
Newton, the top pick of that draft, continued to show growth on the field and set a new career high with 24 touchdown passes while getting intercepted just 13 times. He is the only quarterback in league history to have 50-plus passing and 25-plus rushing touchdowns over his first three seasons and his 2,032 rushing yards are the most ever by a QB in his first three seasons.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, joined Steve Young as the only quarterbacks in San Francisco history to have at least 3,000 passing and 500 rushing yards in a single season and the second-round pick had 21 touchdown passes to eight interceptions this season.
While Kaepernick noted this week that the players do have some similarities, Newton steered away from comparisons and noted they are two different players.
"I'm a fan of him, but I don't have to prepare for Kaepernick. I'm more worried about trying to prepare for (49ers linebackers) NaVarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and those stout defensive lineman they have," said Newton.
Neither quarterback performed well in the earlier meeting this season -- Newton threw for 169 yards and ran for just 15; Kaepernick was limited to 16 yards rushing, 91 yards throwing and was sacked six times -- but Kaepernick does come in with the playoff experience edge.
The 26-year-old has a career postseason passer rating of 93.9 and the Niners are 13-0 when he starts and posts a rating of 100 or better.
Kaepernick's goal will be avoiding a defense that put him on the ground a lot back in November. Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards sacked him twice, defensive end Charles Johnson was credited with 1 1/2 sacks and stud middle linebacker Luke Kuechly also had a sack.
Interestingly, none of the sacks were registered by defensive end Greg Hardy, who had a club single-game record of four sacks in Week 17 versus Atlanta and matched Kevin Greene's 1998 team record of 15 sacks in a season.
Hardy's play this season helped Carolina tie a 1996 team record of 60 sacks this season, the most in the NFL. Nine of those came versus the Falcons.
And even though he didn't get to Kaepernick last time, the Niners know they have to keep an eye on Hardy.
"Greg Hardy is big, real athletic guy, real slippery," San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley said. "When it seems like he's getting blocked, he finds a way to get off blocks and make plays."
Two big differences for the 49ers offense this weekend will be the presence of wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Davis.
Davis suffered a concussion in the second quarter versus the Panthers, depriving Kaepernick of one of his top targets. The tight end caught 13 of Kaepernick's touchdown passes this season and has six career postseason touchdowns. That is tied for the second most by a tight end in NFL history, behind Oakland's Dave Caper's seven.
Davis has gone over 100 yards receiving in four of his six postseason games.
Crabtree, meanwhile, did not make his season debut until Week 13 due to a torn Achilles and made eight catches for 125 yards versus the Packers. His performance also earned some high praise from Harbaugh.
"People talked about cold weather and it being tough to catch balls, but the greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything. It's unbelievable," he said postgame.
Harbaugh didn't back off on the kind words on Monday either.
"He catches the football," the coach said of his receiver. "A lot of people talk about different things for receivers, 40-times or three-cones, how fast they run around the little orange cones etcetera, but pretty darn important to catch the ball for a receiver. I just have never personally seen anybody catch the ball better than Michael Crabtree does."
The Panthers have a solid playmaker on their roster in Smith, who was second on the club with 64 catches and 745 yards to go along with four touchdowns.
And though Carolina did not have a 1,000-yard receiver, six players caught at least 26 passes and seven hauled in a scoring pass from Newton.
It was the same approach to the 11th-ranked ground game, where DeAngelo Williams led the way with 843 yards and three touchdowns, Newton ranked second with 585 yards with six rushing scores and fullback Mike Tolbert ran for five touchdowns and caught another two.
"One thing about this stage is that it's not going to be about me," Newton said. "There are a lot of guys that play an integral part in the things that go on behind the stage so to speak."
Kuechly and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis are two players that are integral to the defense. The duo combined for 179 tackles and six sacks and were the only linebacker combo this season to both log at least 120 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.
Hardy, meanwhile, has 24 sacks in his last 25 games.
Given the similar blueprints to how the teams run, the biggest difference going into Sunday's matchup postseason experience.
"Our guys have done this before. It isn't the first time they have done this. Onward now," said Harbaugh after the Green Bay game.
Newton is doing his best to shake off the lack of experience talk and both he and Rivera have mentioned that they fell the Panthers have been playing postseason football for weeks thanks to the slow start and tight race in the NFC, one that saw the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals not make the playoffs.
"(Less playoff experience) doesn't mean anything. We're all playing on a clean slate as far as playoff preparation. To be honest, this is similar to the games we've played all season, must-have wins," said the Panthers quarterback.
Then there is the fact that the Panthers have already bested the Niners once this season.
"I think one thing it did help is that San Francisco is a very physical football team and we were able to play with them and win the game. I think that really helped instill a little bit of confidence as to the type of football team we can be. They are the measuring stick of the NFC because they're the defending NFC champs," said Rivera.
Just like Newton can't worry about making his playoff debut, the Niners aren't likely to come in worried about mimicking the earlier loss. While it could once again prove to be a defensive test, the additions of Davis and Crabtree to the mix should tilt the field in San Francisco's favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Panthers 16
01/09 15:07:50 ET