The Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers have a lot in common.
Each has a dual-threat quarterback, a top-five defense. The teams’ third-year coaches who were teammates for the Chicago Bears.
The biggest difference between the teams that will meet Sunday in an NFC divisional-round game at Bank of America Stadium is playoff experience.
The 49ers (13-4) are trying to reach the NFC Championship Game for the third consecutive year under coach Jim Harbaugh, a year after losing to Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
The Panthers (12-4) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and haven’t won a playoff game since 2005.
As they began preparations for the 49ers on Monday, Panthers players and coaches downplayed the disparity in postseason experience.
“I’ve never been to the playoffs, and they’ve been to the Super Bowl. But I don’t think that (affects) the outcome of this game at all,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, a 2009 draft pick who arrived a year after the Panthers’ last postseason appearance.
“If we go out there and play Carolina-style football, we should come out victorious.”
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said “there’s no way to argue” the Panthers are more playoff-tested than the 49ers. But Shula said he was surprised when, during an offensive meeting in the preseason, he asked how many players had been in the playoffs and saw a number of hands shoot up.
While nearly every nonrookie on San Francisco’s roster has been in a playoff game, fewer than half (21) the Panthers’ 53-man roster has playoff experience. But the list includes seven starters on offense – including three-fifths of the offensive line – and five on defense.
“We’ve treated every game like a playoff game this year,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “We’ve had games where we’ve had to come back from being down. We’ve had to win games in the last drive. We’ve won on big stages on ‘Monday Night Football.’ We’ve done some things that are playoff-caliber type things.
“They have a lot of playoff experience, but you have to get experience to gain experience. We’re here and we’re going to fight.”
While Harbaugh has a 4-2 playoff record, Ron Rivera will be coaching his first postseason game.
Rivera entered the season with a 2-12 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, before the Panthers dropped their first two games to Seattle and Buffalo by a combined six points.
The Panthers since have won five consecutive games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 10-9 win at San Francisco in Week 10.
“We’ve played a lot of big games this year. We won a lot of games in the fourth quarter,” Rivera said. “We played Sunday night (losing to New Orleans). We played Monday night (beating New England). We played against the 49ers. We played against New England. We had to come back in the win against Miami.
“We had to play the Saints at home for the division lead. We had to beat Atlanta to win the division. So we’ve played a lot of big games, too.”
The Panthers held San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in check during the first meeting, limiting him to 91 passing yards and 16 rushing yards on four carries. They sacked him six times.
But Kaepernick has played well since the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed the first 11 games while recovering from an Achilles injury. Crabtree, who did not play against the Panthers in November, caught eight passes for 125 yards Sunday in a 23-20 win against Green Bay in a wild-card game in frigid conditions at Lambeau Field.
After the game, Harbaugh called Crabtree the “greatest catcher of all-time.”
“Wow, that’s some big, strong words,” Munnerlyn said. “I don’t know about all that, because you’ve got guys like Cris Carter, Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin. You just can’t throw him up there, yet. But he does have good hands and runs great routes.”
In the six games since Crabtree returned from injured reserve, Kaepernick has completed 103 of 171 passes for 1,437 yards.
“He’s a weapon. They’ve got a good balance and they’ve got weapons all over the place,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of Crabtree. “I think it’s his six or seventh game back. So he’s in the full swing of things and doing a heck of a job.”
Moments after rushing for a game-high 98 yards on seven carries, including a third-down scramble that set up Phil Dawson’s game-winning field goal, Kaepernick said the 49ers owed the Panthers for the first game.
“He said that, huh? That’s fine. They owe us,” Tolbert said. “And we’ll be ready for them. We’ll be ready for the challenge, don’t worry about that.”
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