The San Francisco 49ers have an extra week to prepare for the Carolina Panthers. That’s good news for Jim Harbaugh and his staff, because the Panthers are a team on the rise. Or are they?
The defense is undeniably strong. The Panthers are third in the NFL in yards allowed and second in points allowed per game. They had an amazing draft on the defensive side, adding Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short to their outstanding line and safety Rob Lester to the secondary. They’re allowing 3.7 yards per carry and have more interceptions (nine) than passing touchdowns allowed (six).
In his third season, quarterback Cam Newton has gone away from the run to an extent. He’s on pace for 523 rushing yards this season after racking up over 700 yards in each of his first two years. His yards per carry has dropped from 5.6 in his rookie year and 5.8 last year to 4.6 this season. In the process, he has become one of the league’s best passers with a 97.6 rating, thanks to a higher completion percentage (64.9%) and TD/INT ratio (12/5) than ever before.
What’s crazy about Newton’s transformation is who he’s throwing to. His leading receiver is a tight end, Greg Olsen. His second-leading receiver in terms of yards? None other than Ted Ginn, the guy known for shying away from contact during his time with the 49ers. The running backs — apart from Newton — are DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. Williams and Frank Gore are the only 30-year-old backs in the top 10 in yardage (Gore is third with 618; Williams is 10th with 477), and Tolbert is a big dude who’s considered a goal-line back even though he only has three rushing touchdowns. Jonathan Stewart — who should come back tomorrow after spending the season on the PUP list — could factor in as well.
The 49ers, Panthers and Seahawks are the only teams in the NFL who’ve rushed more times than they’ve passed in 2013. That’s not a coincidence — all three teams have a strong defense, a running quarterback, a top-10 running back and not much depth at receiver.
The Panthers look like a strong, well-balanced team that should give the 49ers trouble, and that may end up being the case next Sunday. However, there’s just one nagging question following this team: they haven’t beaten anyone.
Carolina started out the season with a 12-7 home loss to Seattle, a game they led 7-3 at halftime. After that they lost 24-23 in Buffalo (currently 3-5), won 38-0 over the Giants (2-6), lost 22-6 to Arizona (4-4), then three almost identical wins based on score against three terrible teams: 35-10 at Minnesota (1-6); 30-15 at home against St. Louis (3-5); 31-13 at Tampa Bay (0-7 and DOUG MARTIN HAS A TORN LABRUM WHY ISN’T HE ON IR YET AND HOW DOES GREG SCHIANO STILL HAVE A JOB?????).
Granted, the 49ers have won five straight games by similar scores against less-than-superb teams. But pretty much any outcome on Nov. 10 would make sense. If the 49ers blew the Panthers out, it means San Francisco is rolling and the Panthers aren’t yet good enough to fly cross-country and battle one of the NFC’s best squads. If the 49ers win a close one (probably the most likely outcome), it was a hard-fought battle against two similar teams. If Carolina wins, they’re on the rise and Newton’s going to become a media darling once again.