NFL Divisional round: San Francisco 49ers face Carolina Panthers after Ric Flair row
By Paul Higham Twitter: @SkySportsPaulH. Last Updated: 12/01/14 6:14pm
It's like against like as two heavyweight defences clash in Carolina, when the Panthers return to the play-offs to face the red-hot 49ers who are looking to make a third straight NFC Championship game - live on Sky Sports 2 HD.
Both teams had great seasons, both have bone-crunching defences and dual-threat quarterbacks - the last meeting was a 10-9 slugfest, this one could be the same with so much on the line and it looks like being the closest match-up of the weekend.
This is just Carolina's fifth trip to the play-offs, but only once in the previous four trips have they lost their first game, with one NFC title loss and one Super Bowl defeat, so when this new team get to the post-season they usually show up, but they've not been involved since 2009.
The 49ers are one of the most storied franchises in the NFL, with five Super Bowl wins and six NFC titles - last season was the first time they'd lost in a Super Bowl and Jim Harbaugh is desperate to get his team back to the big show.
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The 49ers are the hottest team in the league with seven straight wins, and there seems to be few areas of major concern in what is one of the best all-round teams in the NFL. Colin Kaepernick has been up-and-down this season but saves his best for the play-offs.
Carolina lost just once at Bank of America Stadium, and that was the first game of the season against Seattle, they have 11 wins out of the last 12 and have a fearsome defence and in many ways are a mirror image of the Niners.
"We owe them"
Is what Kaepernick said of the rematch from their 10-9 defeat during the season, in what was a hard-hitting defensive contest with a league-low 401 combined yards and one of just eight games all season containing just one touchdown. Don't count on their being a shootout this time around either.
Visitors averaged 12 points a game in Carolina, while since week four the 49ers defence has only given up just under 15 points a game as well. Kaepernick had one of his worst games against the Panthers, with just 91 yards and one interception, while he could also only muster 16 yards rushing. No wonder he wants revenge.
It's a fascinating battle between two evenly matched teams and two of the best running QBs in the business. Cam Newton is more of the passer if anything, and he seems to be showing more signs of maturity this season, his leadership will be tested in his first play-off game though.
Kaepernick has had some huge dips in performance, but he's already been to, and played superbly well, in a Super Bowl. He's already fifth in all-time play-off rushing yards by a quarterback despite having only played four games, after his 98-yard display in Green Bay last week.
Crabtree the key
You can't really overplay just how important the former Texas Tech wideout is to Kaepernick and this 49ers offence, he had 125 yards against the Packers but his overall impact is even higher with the lift he gives to Kaepernicks' confidence.
Since he returned from injury, the 49ers are 6-0, and that is no coincidence. Crabtree is big, quick, and strong, has at least 100 receiving yards in three of his last four postseason games, and also opens up space for Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, who can do plenty of damage.
Daft as it sounds, a row has actually erupted after a Charlotte hero, pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, turned up at the 49ers camp to give them a pep talk before the Packers game. As one the Panters' most famous fans, this obviously did not go down well with the fans or the players.
The outcry has been so big that the Nature Boy, who's trademark 'whoooo!' has been used at Carolina, will not now attend the game. Even players such as Steve Smith chimed in at Flair: "As a guy who actually has a Ric Flair robe I'm real disappointed in seeing that. I'm not sure if he'll get the invite here. That Golden Gate Bridge has been burned."
There's really so little between these two teams it's scary - as is trying to pick a winner! When two teams are really close you have to look at the play-makers, and San Francisco edge it with both Kaepernick and his receivers having more play-off pedigree.