49ers-Panthers: Preview of NFL divisional round

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 05:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up on the sideline during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on January 5, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Wisconsin cold didn’t seem to phase 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who passed for 227 yards and ran 98 yards in the wild-card victory over the Packers. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)


This game features an enticing matchup of rising-star quarterbacks, Carolina’s Cam Newton and 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick – both of whom are in their third NFL season.

Even Newton, who said that they are “two different players,” sees the parallels.

“Being a big guy, being fast and being agile and having the art of throwing like only God has blessed a few people with – and Kaepernick has it [too],” Newton said (via Associated Press).

Kaepernick, 26, helped San Francisco reach the Super Bowl last year after replacing starter Alex Smith in Week 10.

Sunday will be the first playoff game for the 24-year-old Newton.

“I expect the young man to come out and play well,” said Panthers Coach Ron Rivera, who guided Carolina to its first playoff appearance in five seasons after going 12-4 to win the NFC South (via Associated Press).

The teams met earlier this season, with Carolina edging San Francisco, 10-9, on Nov. 10 at Candlestick Park, a game marked by quarterback struggles and dominant defenses.

Both the 49ers and Panthers ranked in the top five for total defense during the regular season at fifth (316.9 allowed yards per game) and second (301.2 yards), respectively.

The Panthers are in a unique position as the only home team in the divisional round considered an underdog. The latest line at Vegas Insider has the 49ers as a one-point favorite.

Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who said Thursday that his injured left knee is feeling worse, may not be at full strength, although he later said he was joking about that. Gamesmanship? Maybe. We’ll know Sunday afternoon.

The winner advances to play either the Seattle Seahawks or New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game on Jan. 19.

Click here for the complete playoff schedule.

Also on The Early Lead

Who is Austin Hatch? Two-time plane crash survivor returns to basketball (video)