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D is key: First team to 17 will win Panthers-49ers matchup

It has been a long time since a Panthers contest has had a “big-game” feel, but it’s about to happen twice in an eight-day span.

As I’ve said before, the Panthers need to at least split these two upcoming games – at San Francisco Sunday and at home vs. New England on “Monday Night Football” on Nov. 18. Going into the final six games of the season at 6-4 makes the 10-6 record likely needed to ensure a playoff berth much more possible.

Of the two opponents, I think the 49ers are slightly better. Carolina will really have its hands full with the NFL’s No.1 rushing offense, paced by running back Frank Gore. The 49ers’ defense is also incredibly stout, which is a big reason why San Francisco has won its past five games by 24, 31, 12, 14 and 32 points.

Of course, the Panthers are on their own four-game winning streak, and they have won those games by huge margins as well. Both of these teams have scored at least 30 points in at least their last four games, but I don’t see either one doing that Sunday. The defenses are just too good. I think the first team to get to 17 will win.

•  Unusual stat: The Panthers lead the all-time series against San Francisco 10-7, and most surprisingly they are 5-3 on the road at Candlestick. The most memorable of those games was the first one, when the expansion Panthers upset the 49ers 13-7 in November 1995.

•  San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh never threw an official pass for the Panthers, but he did briefly play for Carolina in the 1-15 season of 2001 – his 15th and final season in the NFL. He told me this once when I asked him about it: “I didn’t get in any games that year. I signed late, and they had eight games to go. I loved it – loved the coaches that were there and the organization. I especially loved throwing to Steve Smith. We were both on the scout team at that time. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was really good. I just kept throwing the ball to him and we were making plays and having fun.”

Smith was a rookie that year and was only used as a kick returner – that’s how long ago it was.

•  I’ve hit on my Panthers pick six weeks in a row, and thank you for noticing. I’ve had some folks lobby me to choose the Panthers this week to spring the upset in San Francisco. Sorry, guys, I just can’t quite pull the trigger on that one. My prediction: San Francisco 17, Carolina 13.


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