It’s Panthers by a whisker

This is my Friday column on the 49ers upcoming playoff game against the Panthers.

Before I write off the 49ers, I want to say I underestimated them this season.

When Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles’ tendon during OTAs, I thought the 49ers’ season was dead. And when Aldon Smith drove his truck into a tree and the 49ers started the season 1-2, I thought the season was really most sincerely dead.

But I was wrong.

The 49ers played like maniacs after Week 3, and their record is 12-2 since then. Give credit to Jim Harbaugh for turning the season around, for not letting his team go in the tank. No head coach currently in the NFL gets his players to play harder than Harbaugh does. For all of Harbaugh’s good qualities, that may be his best. And so far, this season may have been Harbaugh’s best as a 49er. He had to overcome more injuries and bad luck this season than the previous two.

So when I say the 49ers will lose on Sunday, it’s not because they aren’t good. They’re as good as any team in the NFL. They could beat the Panthers this Sunday and I could be wrong again.

But as good as the 49ers are, the Panthers may be better. Both teams have good running games. The 49ers have better receivers, but the Panthers have a slightly better defense and a slightly better quarterback.

The Panthers started the season 1-3 and since then, their record is 11-1. The only game they lost was to the Saints in the Superdome, where the Saints were undefeated this season. So, the Panthers may be even hotter than the 49ers right now.

When these two teams played each other Week 10, the Panthers won by just one point and Michael Crabtree didn’t play. But the Panthers beat up the 49ers, knocked out Vernon Davis and Eric Reid. Both the 49ers and Panthers want to beat up their opponent, and the Panthers did the beating in the first matchup.

That’s significant, especially considering they played at Candlestick after the 49ers were coming off a bye week. The 49ers had an extra week to rest and prepare to play the Panthers at home, and the Niners still got beat up.

Now, the situation is reversed. The 49ers have to play in Carolina, and the Panthers are coming off a bye week. They’re rested. The 49ers aren’t. They played just a few days ago in the freezing cold. That will have an effect. Some players may still be sore.

No defense currently is tougher to face on their home field than the Panthers’ defense. They’ve given up 12 points per game at home this season, best in the NFL. And they’ve given up six total touchdowns at home this season, fewer than a touchdown per game.

I predict Vernon Davis will score a touchdown against the Panthers – he’s scored a touchdown in all but four games this season. But I don’t think any other 49er will score.

Not Frank Gore – the Panthers have given up just four rushing touchdowns all season.

And not Anquan Boldin, and not Michael Crabtree. The Panthers’ top three cornerbacks have allowed just one touchdown catch combined.

I am not predicting a blowout loss for the 49ers. If they lose, they’re going to lose by no more than two or three points. The 49ers are too good and too proud to get blown out by any team in the playoffs.

I doubt the Panthers will score more than one touchdown, either. But I expect they will move the ball better than the 49ers.

The Panthers’ No. 1 receiver, Steve Smith, has an injured knee and that will slow him down. But Cam Newton has just an 80.8 passer rating when throwing to Smith this season. Newton doesn’t need Smith. Newton spreads the ball around and is good at it. His passer rating is better than 100 when he targets his running backs or his tight end. And Newton’s rating is 95 when he targets Ted Ginn Jr. Newton is dangerous no matter whom he’s throwing to.

And he converts almost half his third downs. The Panthers converted 44 percent of their third downs this season, and converted 41 percent of their third downs Week 10 against the 49ers. The Panthers probably will convert more than 40 percent again on Sunday.

But the 49ers converted just 15 percent of their third downs against the Panthers. Will Crabtree improve their third-down success?

Maybe, maybe not.

When Crabtree was hurt, the 49ers converted 37 percent of their third downs and, since he has returned, they’ve converted 38 percent – just a 1-percent increase.

Here’s what I expect: The 49ers will outplay the Panthers early, but the Niners won’t build a big lead.

Then, the Panthers will come back and win 16-13.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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