Two ascending teams are set to square off on Sunday when the undefeated 49ers (6-0) take on the surging Carolina Panthers (4-2).
The San Francisco 49ers return home from a cross-country mud fest, knowing that they will have a difficult challenge on their hands in the Carolina Panthers. This week, seven is the magic number for the Niners. They’ll be attempting to move to 7-0 for the first time since 1990, back when Joe Montana was throwing dimes to Jerry Rice every week. The 49ers will also be trying to prevent the Panthers from winning their seventh straight head-to-head regular-season game, dating back to 2001.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan will also be quick to remember that the Carolina Panthers were his first opponent as an NFL Head Coach. His team was beaten emphatically that day, losing 23-3. Thankfully, the team is much improved since then, with only five starters from that game expected to suit up on Sunday.
Sunday’s match-up will be a showcase of two elite defenses. San Francisco’s ranks second in total defense, allowing just 223.5 yards per game. They have held their last three opponents (Browns, Rams, Redskins) to just 10 points combined. Meanwhile, the Panthers lead the league in sacks (27) and sit second in interceptions (nine). Carolina also has the benefit of extended rest and is coming off a bye week. If neither defense cracks, then it would be safe to assume a tight affair that is low in scoring.
49ers’ D vs CMC
Sunday’s most intriguing match-up will be between the 49ers defensive line and Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who Kyle Shanahan compared to Marshall Faulk this week. Through six games, McCaffrey has a league-leading nine total touchdowns and ranks second in total yards with 923 (618 rushing, 305 receiving).
The 49ers will need to find ways to neutralise his ability to find the end zone on any given play. But they certainly won’t be intimidated by the match-up. They have held pass-catching running backs to just 25 targets, 19 receptions and zero touchdowns, which are all league lows.
Winner: Christian McCaffrey
Jimmy G vs Kyle Allen
Although indirect, the battle between Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Allen will also determine the outcome. Both quarterbacks are currently sky-high with confidence and they’ll be seeking to maintain team momentum moving forward. Kyle Allen has done a great job replacing the injured Cam Newton so far. He’s the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to go 5-0 without an interception to start his career. However, he’s fumbled six times in his last four games. That doesn’t bode well when you’re about to face Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and co.
On the flip side, Jimmy Garoppolo has been good for one bad decision per game. He’s averaging one interception per game but appears to be the much more comfortable of the two when taking risks down the field. He’s also getting the ball out extremely quickly, which bodes well since he’s up against the NFL’s leading defense in sacks.
Winner: Jimmy Garoppolo
Kittle vs Kuechly
The best tight end in football, George Kittle, will be matched against Carolina’s veteran linebacke Luke Kuechly. In his last two games against the 49ers, Kuechly has snagged an interception in each and he’ll be ready to go again this week. However, this time, he’ll be tasked with trying to slow down Kittle, on a day that is dedicated entirely to his position – National Tight End Day. George will likely get lots of targets throughout the game, particularly on third down.
Winner: George Kittle
A new target
The San Francisco offense received a big upgrade this week, in the form of a number one wide receiver: they traded for veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders from the Denver Broncos. In exchange, they gave up a third-round and fifth-round pick while getting a fourth back. Sanders is expected to settle into the offense quickly, and he can lean on ex-teammate Wes Welker to support his integration. He brings reliable hands, playoff experience and a fresh opportunity.
Prediction: Panthers 21, 49ers 24
Featured Picture – Credit: Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports