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Deciding factor in 49ers-Panthers could be ol’ what’s his name

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

So where will Sunday’s game be won or lost?

By the two quarterbacks, the two defenses and the two players whose names we don’t know yet.

Carolina’s Cam Newton and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick will be the acknowledged stars on Sunday, and much of their teams’ fortunes will depend on how they do.

But it’s not all about the quarterbacks. These are two of the three best defenses in the NFL (with Seattle being the other). The Panthers were No. 1 in the NFL in sacks and No. 2 in scoring defense and total defense. The 49ers were No. 3 in scoring defense. Not only do these defenses make you punt frequently, but they often cause the sort of turnover mayhem that decides a playoff game.

And then there’s the X factor. Every big game has a couple of players emerge who you weren’t sure could handle this big of a stage – the guy who recovers the fumbled punt or comes in as the sixth defensive back and makes the big interception. A couple of those players will tilt the balance Sunday.

•  To say interest in the Panthers’ first playoff game in five years is high would be quite an understatement. Not only were the single-game tickets gone in three minutes, but I have received calls I have never gotten before this week.

My colleagues at the Observer and myself do a fair amount of sports radio guest spots when asked to do so, but mostly for radio stations in the Carolinas. This time I went on what the producers assured me was the “No. 1 sports radio show” in Dublin, Ireland. They called the host a “presenter.” And the presenter actually asked a number of knowledgeable questions about “Riverboat” Ron Rivera and Newton’s development. I spoke Southern, he spoke Irish, and we got along fine.

•  Let’s move on to the prediction.

Ten points won’t be sufficient to win this game. The Panthers can’t get away with another 10-9 victory, as they did two months ago. San Francisco has wide receiver Michael Crabtree back, and covering him will be a key for the Panthers’ “Legion of Whom” secondary that has to prove itself one more time.

I think the Panthers’ defense is ultimately just a bit better, but Newton will have to play as well as Kaepernick does. If he doesn’t, the Panthers will lose. If he does and those two young stars cancel each other out, the Panthers should have just enough.

My prediction: Carolina 20, San Francisco 16.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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