By Nathan Wright
While San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick aims to continue his postseason success with a much better performance than his last against Carolina, the Panthers' Cam Newton won't make too much of his playoff debut.
Trying for an eighth straight victory that would send them to their third consecutive NFC championship game, Kaepernick and the visiting 49ers look to avenge a regular-season loss to Newton and the Panthers on Sunday.
In perhaps the roughest of his 27 career starts, Kaepernick went 11 of 22 for a season-low 91 yards with an interception, was sacked a career-high six times and rushed for 16 during San Francisco's 10-9 home loss to Carolina on Nov. 10. By holding the hosts to a season-low 151 yards to win their fourth straight in the series, the Panthers also cooled off a 49ers team that at the time was riding a five-game winning streak during which it averaged 34.8 points.
Bucking the elements by not wearing long sleeves, Kaepernick improved to 3-1 in the postseason. He defied the bitter cold and harsh winds to complete 16 of 30 passes, including eight for 125 yards to Michael Crabtree and a key fourth-quarter 28-yard scoring strike to a well-covered Vernon Davis.
Kaepernick averaged only 32.8 rushing yards during the regular season, but he often used his legs to keep drives alive against the Packers. His 11-yard run on third-and-8 set up Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal as time expired.
Kaepernick has gained 362 yards while averaging 11.3 per run in his four postseason games.
The Panthers understand containing Kaepernick a second time likely won't be easy, even for a defense that was second in the NFL with 301.2 yards and 15.1 points allowed per contest, while topping the league with 60 sacks. During the 49ers' current seven-game run, Kaepernick has averaged 231.7 passing yards, thrown 11 TDs with two INTs and averaged 6.7 yards per rush while posting a 101.7 passer rating.
Kaepernick also will have a stronger supporting cast this time.
Crabtree, who missed the first meeting with the Panthers while recovering from a serious Achilles injury, has 28 receptions for 410 yards and three touchdowns in his last four postseason games. Davis, who left that contest early with a concussion, has 24 receptions for 583 yards with six TDs in six career postseason contests.
Frank Gore was held to 66 yards on 20 carries last weekend, but scored a TD for the fourth straight postseason game.
So do the Panthers, none more important than Newton.
After a sub-standard follow-up to his stellar 2011 rookie season, Newton bounced back in 2013 to set career highs in touchdown passes (24), completion percentage (61.7) and passer rating (88.8) while also rushing for 585 yards and six scores. He's helped the Panthers win 11 of 12, leading four game-winning drives during that span.
Now, he will try to push aside the hype of his first playoff experience to help Carolina end a two-game postseason slide. The Panthers are seeking their first playoff victory since a 29-21 win at Chicago on Jan. 15, 2006 in the divisional round.
Newton, however, must improve after Carolina's offense was held to 17 or fewer points in two of the past four games. He completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 330 yards with three TDs and two INTs in the last two, but beat New Orleans and Atlanta.
Newton hopes to have receiver Steve Smith back after he injured his left knee against the Saints and missed the regular-season finale against the Falcons. Though Smith has not caught more than six passes or recorded more than 69 receiving yards in a game in 2013, he has seven touchdowns in eight career postseason contests.
Smith said Friday that his knee feels "fine" and hopes to be ready to play Sunday.
Smith caught six passes for 63 yards Nov. 10 against the 49ers, who have outscored their last seven opponents 182-114.
Carolina has posted a 200-84 scoring advantage while winning seven straight home games since a 12-7 season-opening loss to Seattle.
The Panthers last made the playoffs in the 2008 season, also finishing 12-4 to win the South and earn a first-round bye before losing 33-13 to Arizona. Taking the next step after a stellar regular season will again be the focus for Carolina.