If you were guessing what NFL games would be important in late October — as the league’s schedule-makers have to do each spring — you certainly wouldn’t have picked Carolina at San Francisco.
The 49ers were coming off a 4-12 season in 2018. Carolina went 7-9 and lost seven of its last eight.
And yet here we are, with a terrific matchup looming Sunday between the NFC’s last undefeated team — San Francisco (6-0) — and a 4-2 Panthers squad that has won four games in a row.
Meanwhile, next week’s “Monday Night Football” matchup features 0-6 Miami against 2-4 Pittsburgh.
But that’s the NFL, isn’t it? Except for the Evil Empire of New England, things change dramatically every year.
And here the Panthers find themselves back on a path to possible relevance. If they can upset San Francisco (4:05 p.m. kickoff Sunday), Carolina will move squarely into the national conversation again.
Kyle Allen is about to start his fifth game in a row for the injured Cam Newton, and he hasn’t played a defense anywhere near as good as the 49ers. San Francisco’s defensive front is monstrous, keying a defense that ranks first in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, and second only to New England in total yards allowed and points allowed.
Several fans have asked me recently what this 25th Panthers season most reminds me of, and it’s giving off a definite 2013 vibe.
Remember that one? The Panthers had endured four non-playoff years in a row and had started the season 1-3. Here we go again, fans thought. And Ron Rivera would have almost certainly been fired had he coached Carolina to another losing year in 2013.
But then the Panthers defense came alive, Cam Newton gained some confidence and Carolina ended up 12-4.
The 49ers were good that year, too, and would end up blasting the Panthers out of the playoffs behind a “pre-kneeling” Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick’s most controversial move of the playoff game in Charlotte that postseason only involved him mocking Newton’s Superman celebration.
But before that, the Panthers (on a four-game winning streak, just as they are today) went to play the 49ers in California in the regular season. There they edged the 49ers in a defensive battle, 10-9, behind a Carolina defense that had six sacks and two turnovers.
If the Panthers are going to win Sunday, the score will be something like that.
The 49ers are the first team since the 2005 New England Patriots to allow seven or fewer points and 200 or fewer net yards of offense in three straight games. Their schedule has been favorable, but in the last three games, they have been extraordinary, giving up 3, 7 and 0 points.
I asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera on Monday if this defense would be the biggest test Allen has faced yet.
“Yes,” Rivera said. “And not just his, but ours. This is a very good football team we’re going to be playing against. They’re 6-0 for a reason.”
Multiple reasons, really. The 49ers run the ball well and defend everything beautifully. Their general manager, John Lynch, is building a defense that looks a lot like the best of those Tampa Bay defenses for which he used to play.
For all that, though, the 49ers have only played one team with a winning record (the L.A. Rams). San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t faced a defense yet with the combined pass-rushing potential of the Panthers, who are still first in the NFL in total sacks despite having a bye last week.
This game in California has a shot at being one of the linchpins of Carolina’s regular season — an afternoon that proclaims: “Hey, we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Or, the Panthers may lose 30-7, and there will be a set of very different questions surrounding the team next week.
But this is a chance to prove something. And for a team that started 0-2 and has lost its starting quarterback for five weeks and counting, that’s something in itself.