Editor’s Note: The line in this game swung wildly on many gambling sites and in Vegas. It apparently closed in Latvia (Bovada for days) at San Fran (-3).
SAN FRANSICO AT CAROLINA +2.5: Like several of the matchups in these playoffs, these teams have played before. On Sunday November 10, the Panthers went to San Fran and snuck the 10-9 win. As evidenced by the score, these teams are very even. Like the Colts v. Pats matchup this weekend, these two teams are very similar. They both feature good defenses and running QB’s. These are the matchups that decide the outcome.
SF’s OL v. Carolina’s DL: This matchup gets me excited. We are talking about grown man football here. The last time these units went at each other was just a brutal game. I gushed about the 49ers OL last week and they didn’t totally live up to my expectations. Gore was held to 66 yards on 20 carries. That is only a 3.3 average. Kaepernick was sacked 3 times, but he also ran for 98 yards, some on designed runs. They face a much better defense this week. The Panthers are the league’s 2nd ranked defense against the run. (They also are 2nd overall). They are led by all Pro Bowl caliber LB Luke Kuechly, (more on him later), and one of the best front four’s in the NFL, DE Charles Johnson, DE Greg Hardy, DT Colin Cole and rookie DT Star Lotuleli. Star might have been the steal of the draft. Lots of experts had him as a top 5 pick and he fell all the way to 14th. If DT’s could win awards he would be in consideration for rookie of the year. Back in November, this group held Frank Gore to 81 yards on 16 carries, and a good chunk of those were on one amazing run by Gore where he broke a lot of tackles. The holes were not there. San Francisco’s eight other carries went for a total of 23 yards. This group can also get after the QB. No team in the NFL sacked the QB more times than the Panthers. They sacked Kaepernick 6 times in the last matchup. This is even more impressive when you consider he dropped back to pass only 28 times. Thanks to stat geeks at ESPN, I found out that the second-highest sack rate posted by a team in one game all season. (Guess what the first is? the Lions pillaging Matt Flynn on Thanksgiving). There isn’t much more I need to say here. It’s strength vs. strength. Based on what happened last time, and my belief that a good defense beats a good offense, this decision isn’t as hard as I initially thought. Advantage Carolina.
Colin Kaepernick v. Luke Kuechly: I wouldn’t have guessed that Luke would be the next Ray Lewis watching him play at BC, (probably because the media force fed me coverage of his fellow LB Mark Herzlich’s battle with cancer, and I don’t watch BC games often). The reason I am comparing Luke to Ray and not the obvious choice of Urlacher is because I am not afraid to do cross racial comparisons (this is Obama’s America, I can do that shit now) and also because it’s honestly a better comparison. Urlacher was a better athlete than Lewis. He played safety in college and sometimes returned kicks. Lewis was nowhere near as good as Urlacher in coverage. I will save the argument about who was better overall for a different day. What made Lewis great was his ability to captain the defense and anticipate runs and stop them. Kuechly is really smart, and has become the Panther’s version of Lewis, without all the screaming at people and murdering. Speaking of preaching, I keep preaching about how all things in football are related. One of the reasons Lewis was so great is that the Ravens always had huge skilled DT’s swallowing up blockers, permitting Lewis to run unabated to stuff the hole for the ball carrier. Kuechly is aided by the boys up front I just discussed. On the other side of the ball, Kaepernick showed how dangerous he can be as a runner last week on his 42 yard scamper. It will be on Kuechly to diagnose the symptoms of the read option, and designed QB runs, and put the defense in the right position to stop them. Their last meeting, Colin was held to 4 rushes for 16 yards. Again, good defense beats good offense, so while it’s a little closer here than above, there is a winner in this matchup. Advantage Carolina.
Michael Crabtree v. Melvin White or Captain Munnerlyn: As you may have guessed by the 10-9 score, Kaepernick’s passing line was brutal the last time he played the Panthers. He went 11-for-22 for 91 yards and an interception. He posted a passer rating of just 42.0. Yuck. He was missing his favorite target though. I may be over emphasizing last week’s game, but boy does Colin love Crabtree. In subzero temperatures, he was targeted 13 times and finished with eight catches for 125 yards in the win, racking up six first downs while also drawing a defensive holding penalty. Last time against the Panthers, the Niners had to go with Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham at WR. This allowed Carolina to put their speedy 5-8 CB Captain Munnerlyn on Manningham, and their bigger 6’1 205 lb rookie Melvin White on the bigger, slower Bolden. That is a perfect matchup for what is the weakest link of the Panther defense, (their secondary). Luckily for Carolina, their awesome pass rush has made them look better than they probably are. (It’s all related). Crabtree presents a matchup problem for the Panthers. Munnerlyn is solid in coverage, but he gives up a couple of inches and about 30 lbs to both Bolden and Crabtree. Crabtree is probably also a mismatch for White in the speed department. This by far is the biggest difference between the first game and Sunday’s matchup. The 49ers are a different offense when Crabtree is playing at 100%. While I am not a fan of Crabtree personally, I can’t ignore this matchup problem for Carolina. Advantage SF.
Carolina’s OL v. SF’s front 7: One of the most underrated parts of Carolinas team is the OL. When you look at the skill players that Cam Newton has on offense, to quote Silverfox, it doesn’t move the needle much. D’Angelo Williams was very good at one time but is on the decline. Same with James Stewart and Steve Smith, (more on them later). Mike Tolbert, Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell are basically castoffs from other teams. While Cam Newton may be a good QB, (you can find tons of discussion about whether or not he is in the national media this week), the stats show me that the Panthers have the 29th ranked passing offense, but a respectable 11th ranked rushing attack. Again this is not because any of these backs are elite. In my opinion, the best member of this unit is Ryan Khalil, the Center. Based on their previous matchup, the OL didn’t fare so well against the Niners. The Panthers rushed for 109 yards but it took them 31 carries. They only scored 10 points the whole game. I wrote about them last week, but the Niners are very good at stopping the run. (3rd in the league). My recommendation to Ron Rivera is to use Williams as much as possible. The Niners sometimes tend to over pursue as well because of their aggressive nature. His cut back ability gives the Panthers a chance to break a long gain. Like I said about the Saints with Sproles, don’t save Williams for next year, there isn’t much gas left in the tank. I don’t think Rivera will ride Williams though, and since the Niners don’t really have to worry much about the 29th ranked passing offense, they can focus on the run. Advantage SF
Steve Smith’s Injury v. Carlos Rodgers Injury: This could change everything. Right now Steve Smith and Carols Rodgers are both unlikely to play. If both played they would go head to head against each other. I traded for Smith in fantasy and let me tell you he clearly has lost a step this season. In 2011-12, Smith averaged 80.3 receiving yards per game; this year, that figure dropped to 49.7 yards per contest. The most noticeable decline was in Smith’s big play ability. Smith averaged 11.6 yards per catch this year after 16.9 yards per catch over the previous two seasons. Gone are the days where he has an 80 yard TD. Still, Smith is huge on third down, as his 17 conversions on third down were seven more than anybody else had on the Panthers. The Niners are not really good against the pass, and I think they may have lost to Aaron Rodgers last week if the weather was better. If I were the Panthers I would want Smith in this game, if for no other reason than his desire to show up Ric Flair. Either one would significantly impact the outcome if they play. Since neither are likely to play. EVEN
BONUS MATCHUP: Vernon Davis v. Chase Blackburn and Quintin Mikell: I will keep this short and sweet. Last time they met, Davis left the game in the first half with a concussion after his only catch of the game. His replacement, promising rookie Vance McDonald, dropped a sure 35 yard TD pass. Davis is a matchup problem for any team when healthy, and Blackburn and Mikell are not particularly adept at covering a freak like Davis. Advantage SF
Prediction: This most likely will be another low scoring defensive battle. The two teams are very evenly matched, but it’s hard to say that the Niners with Crabtree and Davis for a full game won’t win a game they lost by one point. These are two of the hottest teams in the league, the Niners with 7 wins in a row, and the Panthers on an 11-1 streak. (The only loss was at NOLA). I respect what Cam Newton has done this year, but it’s more likely that Kaepernick will be able to pass to Crabtree like last week. The line is also telling me that Vegas really likes SF. NINERS -2.5
SAN DIEGO AT DENVER -9: On Playoff weekends, the NFL puts its marquee game on Sunday afternoon. (Its second ranked game is put on Saturday Night). Look no further if you want proof that the NFL loves its QB’s. Last week Rodgers got the prime location, with Brees going on Saturday Night. At least they were both good games. This week, Peyton Manning gets the #1 spot with Brady going Saturday Night. Manning is so popular he gets the nod over Brady even though odds makers think this game is not going to be close. Yet, the Chargers stayed within 8 the first time they played and did actually beat Denver the last time these two teams played. Why? It’s all about match ups. Since this game doesn’t do a lot for me, I am going to keep this as abbreviated as possible. We know that Denver has a record setting offense and we know that the Chargers have one of the league’s worst defenses. It’s very obvious that Denver has the advantage in anything involving passing or running on the Chargers. Here are the matchups San Diego must win to have a chance.
Chargers OL v. Denver DL: The only game I was egregiously wrong about last week was the Chargers v. Bengals. The matchup that I was most wrong about involved the Chargers OL. They kept Rivers upright, allowing only 1 sack. They ran for a whopping 196 yards. Denver’s DL is nowhere near as good as the Bengals. The last time these two teams played, the Chargers did an incredible job of keeping Manning off the field by producing long, successful drives. The Broncos got only four chances across two quarters to try to score. Let me hammer this home one more time. Everything in football is related. The best defense against Manning is an offense that can keep the ball away from him. It is imperative that the Chargers do it again. They are certainly capable of winning this one. ADVANTAGE SD.
Ryan Matthews v. Wesley Woodyard: Who is Woodyard? Who are all of the Bronco’s LBs? Danny Trevathan? Nate Irving? It’s bad that I never heard of them. I am still not particularly fond of Ryan, but at least I know who he is. This is a very winnable matchup. ADVANTAGE SD. Editor’s Note: In a rare split with the Lion, I’m predicting we’ll all know who Wesley Woodyard is by the end of these playoffs. He’s quietly one of the better LBs in the league and is the best active player on the Broncos defense.
SD WR v. Denver Secondary: Sorry Chargers, this is where the run ends. Denver has a sneaky good secondary, lead by old, but still solid CB’s Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Yes Champ is finally healthy, and just in time. The Safeties play on a rotation, Duke Ihenacho and Omar Bolden are not particularly good, but when rotating in with David Bruton and the Lion’s college acquaintance Mike Adams, have nice depth. This secondary is actually on par with the Bengals secondary last week if they play the way that they are capable. The key is not so much the big play, but getting off the field on third down. I thought to myself last week that Rivers was uncanny at picking up 3rd and longs. Turns out, he has done this all season. The Chargers convert 49.0 percent of their third-down tries, the most by 3 percent. The team in second is Denver. We might not see punters here. While SD can win this matchup, I have to think it will go the other way. Advantage DENVER.
PREDICTION: I really can’t get past that Dalton blew the game for the Bengals last week. The game was actually similar to the Chargers victory over the Broncos. In that Monday Night Game, which I watched, the Broncos beat themselves. The Offensive line confused blocking schemes allowing for a rare Manning sack and angry Manning pout. They did so by using the tactic of having the defensive front sort of hop and meander around the LOS without their hands down to try to confuse Peyton and his OL. It worked. I don’t think Manning is the type of guy who will let a scheme beat him twice. The Chargers have vastly improved on D as the season as gone on, especially with the improved health of Manti Teo, CB Derreck Cox, and DE Melvin Ingram, but I just don’t see this continuing. This team is just not that good. Then again, over his whole career, the Chargers seem to have Manning’s number. Hmm. I just don’t see the Chargers being good enough to take 2 out of 3 from Denver or 2 in a row from them. Maybe I am still bitter they got into the playoffs, but I can’t take SD. I guess I will take the Broncos and root for Manning v. Brady or Manning v. Luck next week. Watch it not even happen. The line dropped from 9.5 to 9. That half a point makes the difference for me. DENVER -9.