We are just a few days away from the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. If the Panthers win, they move on to play Seattle on the road, or New Orleans in Charlotte (should the Saints somehow beat the Seahawks in Seattle). Here are your x-factors for the Panthers upcoming battle with the San Francisco 49ers. These are players that need to have a good game for the Panthers to have success against an incredibly similar team in the 49ers.
1. Ted Ginn Jr WR.
This will be the second shot Ted Ginn gets against his former team. Last season, Ted Ginn was an afterthought in the 49ers organization. He was underutilized (totaling 2 catches for 1 yard) and you can expect him to still be bitter about the situation. He was largely held in check the first time around, Week 10 this season (2 receptions for 19 yards) ,but was dangerous in the return game (107 total yards). No return was more important than his punt return that set up the Panthers in great position for their game winning drive, capped off by a Graham Gano field goal. I have a feeling Ted is going to have a bigger impact in this game as a receiver. With Steve Smith not 100%, it will be up to the rest of the receiving group to step up and make plays. Expect a lot of quick slants and screens to try and find Ginn in space and let him make a play. I think this is the game Ted will have his first return TD as a Panther.
2. Graham Gano K
Special teams getting a lot of love in this article. Graham Gano has been money all season. It seems the Panthers finally found a competent replacement for the great John Kasay. This game is going to be a defensive slugfest and special teams will be that much more important. If drives are stalling we will need Gano to make everyone of his field goal attempts. Points will be a premium and having a kicker with a leg and accuracy like Gano’s is a real game changer. In the preseason Gano kicked a 63 yarder at the Panthers’ Fan Fest. Yes it was just practice, but it has shown in games as evidenced by his 100% accuracy on kicks of over 50 yards (6/6, including the game winner against San Fran). One missed field goal could be the difference in this game and I believe the Panthers have the advantage over the 49ers at this position. Phil Dawson of the 49ers is in his 15th season but he played excellent against the Packers last week. However, I would not be surprised to see him miss a kick or two in Charlotte.
3. Greg Hardy DE
Release the Kraken! Over his last 2 games, Hardy has 7 sacks. His 15 on the season are good for 3rd in the NFL, but the 49ers had no problem handling him. Joe Staley is one of the best left tackles in the business. Staley held the Kraken to 0 sacks and only 3 tackles. That simply cannot happen this game. The Panthers are going to need to have consistent pressure on Kaepernick to disrupt his rhythm and force him into mistakes. I know Hardy remembers this matchup and is chomping at the bit to get a second chance. The reason Hardy is so successful is his motor never stops. He constantly drives lineman away, never giving up on a play. The Panthers are going to need all the energy they can get especially from this man. If he can break down Staley, there’s no doubt the 49ers offense will struggle.
4. Captain Munnerlyn CB
The Panthers secondary did an excellent job limiting Kaepernick in the passing game. Kaep failed to complete a single deep pass all game (the first time in his career this has happened with multiple attempts). Kaepernick was without Michael Crabtree and lost Vernon Davis early in the game. The challenge will be even greater this time around for the secondary and especially so for Captain. He will more than likely draw Crabtree all day. Crabtree has the obvious height advantage, but Captain makes up for his lack in stature with his physical play. If he can bump Crabtree at the line and knock him off his timing (something that may be lacking considering the amount of time Crabtree has missed), Munnerlyn should be able to tame this offense. Anquan Boldin will be a real threat on the outside as well. I don’t know if the Panthers have played an offense with so many playmakers yet this season and that worries me. The Panthers secondary against the 49ers receivers will be the matchup of the day and the winner of this battle will more than likely win the game.
5. Byron Bell RT
It’s no secret that Bell has played inconsistent all season (especially on the road). That cannot happen this week. The Niners have an excellent front 7 stacked with pass rushers. Aldon Smith will more than likely attack Jordan Gross all game but the player that concerns me the most is Ahmad Brooks. He harassed Cam all game in week 10. Jim Harbaugh does an excellent job lining Brooks up in position to make a play. This is where Byron Bell comes in. Brooks will more than likely blitz his side and he is going to have to recognize this and be prepared to handle him should it happen. The running backs will definitely have to help with chips in the backfield but the offensive line (especially Byron Bell) will need to be at their A game if Cam and this offense are to move the chains. Byron is a class act and works hard, so I know he has been putting in the time and work these last few weeks to prepare for his first playoff game. He was also featured on this week’s edition of This is Gross. You should check it out if you have the time. Bell’s journey to the NFL is an amazing story. Lets hope it continues into an NFC Championship berth.
These are your 5 x factors for the Panthers 49ers divisional playoff game. If all 5 of these players can have good games, the Panthers should be in good shape come Sunday. Let us know what you think fans. Who needs to step up in a big way for Carolina to get the job done? As always we appreciate the feedback. Go Panthers! Keep Pounding!