49ers at Panthers
When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. EST (FOX)
Records: 49ers 13-4, Panthers 12-4
Favorite: 49ers by 1.
Story line: Two teams that look like identical twins in terms of style and stats, they played a one-point game two months ago and hook up again for the right to advance to the NFL's final four.
About the 49ers: On a seven-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 182-114, and aiming for a third straight NFC title trip. Colin Kaepernick was blanketed by Carolina in a 10-9 loss at San Fran on Nov. 10. Sacked six times in the defeat, he passed for 91 yards and rushed for 16, but he didn't have WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis was hurt in the first quarter. In his playoff career, Kaepernick averages 362 ypg, Crabtree 102.5 ypg and Davis 97.2 ypg. Frank Gore still pounds it for the NFL's No. 3 rushing offense. The defense is No. 3 in scoring and No. 5 in total yardage.
About the Panthers: Won their final seven home games with a 200-84 scoring advantage. Like the Niners, they play suffocating defense -- No. 2 overall and No. 2 against the rush -- and offer a ground-based, low-risk offense. Cam Newton has similar attributes to Kaepernick and is coming off a career season in TD passes, percentage and passer rating, but he's never been in the playoffs. The Panthers, whose offense has bogged down lately, need more downfield passing, and deep threat Steve Smith (knee) is iffy. The Carolina D is coming off a nine-sack game.
Prediction: 49ers, 20-17. Only about one in four visitors wins in the divisional round. Here is the one. The Niners have more pedigree.
Chargers at Broncos
When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. EST (CBS)
Records: Chargers 10-7, Broncos 13-3
Favorite: Broncos by 91/2.
Story line: Peyton Manning, after posting the best statistical season an NFL quarterback has ever had, attempts to avoid another playoff pratfall. He is 167-73 in the regular season and 9-11 in the postseason, dropping his past three.
About the Chargers: A loose, dangerous team that has won five in a row and is playing with house money. QB Philip Rivers had a career year, and he is 10-6 against Denver and 6-2 in the Mile High City, including a 27-20 win Dec. 12. He operates a balanced, fifth-ranked offense, although RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) is hobbled, making both Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown more significant. The Chargers are averaging 170.2 yards rushing during their winning streak. The improved defense is allowing just 16.3 ppg over the past six.
About the Broncos: The highest-scoring team (37.9 ppg) of the Super Bowl era has been held under 30 just three times -- but two of them came against the Chargers. Manning welcomes back Wes Welker (concussion), who missed the most-recent San Diego game. The Broncos are the first team with five receivers who have at least 60 catches, and the first with five guys who have at least 10 TDs. Defense is the issue, especially against the pass (rank of 27th). Without Von Miller, there isn't much pressure. CB Champ Bailey vs. rookie Keenan Allen will be a key matchup.
Prediction: Broncos, 38-24. They'll be on high alert after collapsing at this point of the playoffs a year ago and after losing to the Chargers last month on this field.
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