San Francisco vs. Carolina.
Franchise quarterback vs. franchise quarterback.
Two of the hottest NFL teams right now.
First divisional matchup ever.
All combine to create the potentially lowest-scoring game in NFL playoff history.
With a trip to the NFC Championship on the line, QB Colin Kaepernick and his 49ers will travel to Carolina on Sunday to take on QB Cam Newton and the Panthers inside the Bank of America Stadium.
And one thing is for absolute sure: these guys are tired of being compared to each other. Well, maybe Newton more than Kaepernick.
Yes, they’re a lot alike. Both Kaepernick and Newton are “dual-threat/hybrid” quarterbacks. They’re both big and outrageously athletic. And they were both drafted in 2011 (the Panthers took Newton as the first overall pick while the 49ers drafted Kaepernick with the 36th pick).

Newton is the only QB in NFL history to have 50+ passing and 25+ rushing touchdowns over his first three seasons, and Kaepernick is the second QB ever to have at least 3,000 passing and 500 rushing yards in a single season.

But since taking his team to Super Bowl XLVII last year, Kaepernick has, well, regressed a bit this season. So much so that the 49ers’ passing offense was ranked #31 after 13 weeks. The 49ers went from being a back-t0-back Super Bowl favorite to barely making it over the playoff bubble.
In last week’s Wild Card game against the Packers, the 49ers traveled to Green Bay to play in extreme cold against a dangerous offense. Kicker Phil Dawson launched them into the next round with a time-expiring field goal, winning 23-20.

On the other hand, Carolina has won 11 out of their last 12 games, including their 10-9 victory over the 49ers (in San Fran) in Week 10. And despite that this is the first time they’ll face the 49ers in a playoff situation, the Panthers have won eight of their last 10 games overall against them.

Not that it was a walk in the late season park for the Panthers to get to this point. They barely beat out the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17 to wrap up the division, 21-20.

An obvious key to this week’s game will be which defense can better contain the opposing QB. For the 49ers, they’ll need to be prepared for Panthers’ defensive end Greg Hardy. Because although he didn’t get to Kaepernick (who was sacked six times by Carolina in Week 10) in their previous matchup, Hardy has helped Carolina tie the team record of 60 sacks this season – the most in the NFL. And seeing as how he has 24 sacks in his last 25 games, I expect him to get a couple against Kaepernick this go-round.
For the 49ers defense, as always, look out for the dynamic duo of defensive end Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith (two of my favorite University of Missouri grads) to really affect Newton. These guys play extremely well together.

The main difference (or should I say differences) this weekend will be for the 49ers’ offense. Offensively, San Francisco is a different team since week 10. In their previous matchup, the 49ers lacked the dominant on-field presence of both wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Crabtree, who suffered a torn Achilles, and Vernon, who suffered a concussion in the 2nd quarter vs. the Panthers, are two of Kaepernick’s favorite and most effective targets. And for good reasons.

Davis has 13 of Kaepernick’s TDs this season, six career postseason touchdowns (tying him for the second most by a tight end in NFL history), and 100+ receiving yards in four of his six postseason games. And Crabtree, well, he’s just physical. He’s the key to their deep ball game, which the Panthers really didn’t have to worry about last time. Since getting him back on the field, the 49ers have gone 6-0.

Bottom line: both the 49ers and the Panthers aren’t the best at stopping athletic quarterbacks, but they do both have nasty defenses. It’s going to be a battle, and I don’t expect either team to score many points on Sunday.

However, I do think the Panthers are tired of being called the “underdog,” even when they’re on their hometurf. (But really, how can you be an underdog and a division champion?) They’ve beat some formidable foes at home (see: Pats, Saints), so why not the 49ers?

Then again, the 49ers will have revenge on their mind. Sweet, sweet, low-scoring revenge.

Tune into FOX this Sunday, 10:05am PST/1:05pm EST, to see if this game comes down to the final play or – even better – overtime.