KICKOFF: 1 p.m. EST on SUNDAY
THE LINE: Pick 'em (over/under 42)
KEY INJURIES: San Francisco -- Questionable: CB Carlos Rogers (hamstring). Carolina -- Questionable: WR Steve Smith (hamstring), RB Jonathan Stewart (knee).
EDGE >> 49ERS
The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick threw for 3,197 yards, 21 TDs and eight INTs in his first full year as a starter, and he did just enough to win last week's game at Green Bay. WR Michael Crabtree missed the 49ers' 10-9 loss to Carolina on Nov. 10 because of injury, but he caught eight passes for 125 yards last week against the Packers. Carolina's Cam Newton had a solid season but was sacked 43 times, including three times by the 49ers in the first meeting. TE Greg Olsen is Newton's favorite target, but he sorely needs Steve Smith (knee) to be available.
EDGE >> 49ERS
Frank Gore is the 49ers' workhorse for the No. 3 rushing team in the NFL with 1,128 yards, his franchise-record seventh 1,000-yard season. He runs behind Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and tackle Joe Staley. Gore averages 91.3 yards per game in six career postseason games and has scored TDs in four straight playoff games. Kaepernick's ability to run (he had a 40-yard scramble last week) puts pressure on the defense. Carolina likes to grind it out with RBs DeAngelo Williams (843 yards), FB Mike Tolbert (361) and Newton (585). If the scoreboard dictates Newton go to the air, it could get ugly for Carolina. Newton has never attempted 40 passes in a game.
EDGE >> PANTHERS
Defense dominated the first meeting when Carolina rallied from a 9-0 deficit, and it could be the theme of this game. Carolina finished the regular season second in points allowed (15.1 per game), yards allowed (273.6) and rushing yards allowed (86.9 per game), while leading the league in sacks (60) and fewest touchdowns allowed (21). DEs Greg Hardy (15 sacks) and Charles Johnson (11) get after the quarterback and MLB Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL with 320 tackles, could be the spy on Kaepernick. The 49ers rank No. 5 on defense and have the game's best linebacking corps in NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis. The return of OLB Aldon Smith has rejuvenated the defense.
EDGE >> PANTHERS
The Panthers seem to have the 49ers' number. They are 8-2 all-tine against San Francisco, including four straight wins. It's the first playoff game for Carolina since Arizona surprised the Panthers in Charlotte in 2008, so it should be a super-charged atmosphere in NASCAR country.
FACE TO FACE
Carolina DE Greg Hardy vs. 49ers LT Joe Staley
Hardy led the Panthers with 15 sacks in the regular season and was third in the NFL. Staley, however, shut out Hardy out in Carolina's Week 10 win in San Francisco. Hardy is coming off a four-sack performance in the regular-season finale against Atlanta. The 49ers will have to account for Hardy, who is known to wear unique face paint and give memorable on-screen introductions on nationally televised games. Staley, a three-time Pro Bowler, is one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the NFL and even caught a 14-yard pass in the regular-season finale against Arizona.
WHY THE 49ERS WILL WIN
The 49ers, who were Super Bowl runners-up last year, have plenty of playoff experience. And they showed in winning the NFC championship in Atlanta last year and last week in Green Bay that playing on the road, even three time zones away, does not faze them.
WHY THE PANTHERS WILL WIN
The Panthers allowed just 21 touchdowns, fewest in the league, and just four rushing touchdowns. It's going to be hard for the 49ers to get ahead and put pressure on Newton to beat them.
Randy Covitz's pick: 49ers 16-13
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