Seize the spotlight
Cam Newton vs. Colin Kaepernick. Ron Rivera vs. Jim Harbaugh, his former Bears teammate. By beating the defending NFC champs, the Panthers can silence critics who say they’ve fattened up on bottom-feeders. The Panthers’ stingy first-half defense has allowed them to start fast, which could quiet the Candlestick crowd if they do so again today. The 49ers are 16-3-1 at home under Harbaugh.
See Smith, block Smith
The 49ers get one of the league’s premiere pass-rushers back in linebacker Aldon Smith, who missed five games while in a treatment center following a DUI arrest. The Niners went 5-0 in his absence, but have only five sacks over the past four games. Smith, who has 38 sacks since being drafted in 2011, could give the Panthers trouble with his long frame and athleticism. No. 2 tight end Ben Hartsock and the backs will have to help.
Strength vs. strength
The Panthers’ front seven will be tested against the league’s No. 1 rushing attack. Behind Kaepernick and Frank Gore, the league’s seventh-leading rusher with 618 yards, the Niners have 14 rushing plays of 20 yards or more, tied with Oakland for first. They also have 40 runs of at least 10 yards, which ranks second behind Seattle. The Panthers are second against the run, but struggled at times to contain mobile quarterbacks Russell Wilson and EJ Manuel.
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