The San Francisco 49ers have to go on the road for the second straight week on Jan. 12. While the 49ers don't have to play in zero degree temperatures again -- at least until the Super Bowl -- they still have to visit a Carolina Panthers team that won 11 of their last 12 games, including one in San Francisco. Yet the Panthers are still being overlooked as the only home underdog of the weekend anyway.
Although this is a pick-em game, the 49ers are generally considered to have the edge, given their pedigree as defending NFC champions. With their experience and with this being Cam Newton's first ever playoff game, the Panthers have far more to prove in this rematch.
Carolina may have pulled out an NFC South title, but it came very close to losing its last two games to the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers may have been able to squeak by in December, but January could be another matter. Now that the 49ers are peaking as well, they will have a better chance to make the Panthers pay than they did two months ago.
Back on Nov. 10, the Panthers got their first statement win of the season over the 49ers, in a bruising 10-9 defensive struggle. San Francisco was in the midst of a midseason swoon that made the difference in losing the NFC West to the Seattle Seahawks, while Carolina was just starting to make its surge in the NFC South. However, the 49ers have certainly rounded out since then, right when they can make their third straight appearance in the NFC title game.
With that experience, the chance to fulfill unfinished business at the Super Bowl -- and the chance to have another rematch with the Seahawks for the NFC championship -- the signs seem to point towards the 49ers. Yet this overlooks a team that has only lost once in the last three months and has come from nowhere to be an NFC power, which may set the stage for a true Panthers coming out party.
Either way, the NFC finale will either have a third San Francisco-Seattle showdown, or a rematch of Seattle and Carolina's Week 1 defensive slugfest. The exact rematch will be determined starting at 1 p.m. est on FOX.