Five matchups to watch in Sunday’s NFC playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers (1:05 p.m., Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte).
Panthers DE Greg Hardy vs. 49ers LT Joe Staley
Although Hardy didn’t record a sack in the first meeting, he gave Staley trouble with his long arms and speed off the edge. Staley, a three-time Pro Bowler, was beaten on an inside move by Hardy early in the game. If the Niners allow Colin Kaepernick to be sacked six times again, they won’t win.
Panthers LB Luke Kuechly vs. 49ers TE Vernon Davis
Kuechly could be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s struggled at times covering tight ends on seam routes. Kuechly is fast enough to stay with Davis, but has to get his head turned around and make plays on the ball. Davis, one of the game’s best tight ends, was knocked out of the Nov. 10 game vs. the Panthers in the second quarter with a concussion.
Panthers CB Melvin White vs. 49ers WR Michael Crabtree
The Panthers typically don’t flip their corners, meaning the rookie White figures to see his share of Crabtree, sidelined with an Achilles injury the last time these teams met. Crabtree is coming off an eight-catch, 125-yard game vs. the Packers, and White usually is the guy opposing quarterbacks pick on. But his interception for a touchdown vs. Matt Ryan in Week 17 changed the complexion of the game.
49ers OLB Aldon Smith vs. Panthers LT Jordan Gross
Smith was a non-factor in the Week 10 game, playing 12 snaps without a sack or tackle in his first game back after a five-week stay at a treatment center. Smith was disruptive in the playoff win at Green Bay, lining up inside and outside and getting 1.5 sacks on Aaron Rodgers. In what could be his final game with the Panthers, Gross must be quick with his slide-step to keep Smith from blasting Cam Newton from the blind side.
49ers ILB NaVorro Bowman vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton
Bowman and Patrick Willis form one of the best linebacking tandems in the NFL, and Bowman has taken his game to another level in recent weeks. His pick-six of Ryan sealed a win in the final regular-season game at Candlestick Park, and he was responsible for three takeaways in Week 17 at Arizona. Newton has to be more precise with his passes than he was against the 49ers in November. Bowman helped limit Newton to 15 rushing yards on eight carries in the first game.