Steve Smith’s knee
The Panthers saw what their passing game would look like without Steve Smith in a Week 17 win at Atlanta. It wasn’t pretty. The receivers had trouble creating separation and when they were open, Cam Newton overthrew them. Smith, who sprained the PCL in his left knee against New Orleans on Dec. 22, has made it clear he will play Sunday. What’s less certain is whether Smith will be able to get off the line quickly and maneuver in and out of breaks. If the 49ers believe Smith isn’t his usual self, they could roll coverage toward No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell, who’s caught one pass the last two games.
Which quarterback makes more plays?
Both Newton and Colin Kaepernick struggled in the Panthers’ Week 10 win at San Francisco. The Panthers created pressure with their front four, stayed in zone coverage and made Kaepernick (11 of 22, 91 yards, 1 interception) throw into tight windows. Newton (16 of 32, 169, 1 interception) wasn’t much better, finishing with a 52.7 passer rating, compared to Kaepernick’s 42.0. Since leading Auburn to a national title in his lone season with the Tigers, Newton has thrived on the big stage. If Smith is limited, Newton will have to look for opportunities to run, as he did vs. Atlanta. Kaepernick won’t be undone by the pressure: He’s 2-0 in road playoff games.
Will Riverboat Ron stay loose?
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has never warmed to his nickname, saying he’s more of a calculated risk-taker than a gambler. But Rivera’s go-for-broke, fourth-down conversion moment after the Buffalo loss at Week 2 energized the team and kick-started the eight-game winning streak that got the Panthers in this position. In his first playoff game as a head coach, it will be interesting to see if Rivera reverts to his conservative ways the first time he’s faced with a tough decision. Rivera said the Panthers’ slow start made every week a playoff game for the Panthers. But there’s nothing quite like the pressure-cooker of a win-or-go-home game in January.