NFL Preview - Carolina (5-3) at San Francisco (6-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers have used a similar formula for success this season: a lot of points, a chain-moving ground game and stingy defense.
The two streaking clubs go head-to-head this weekend in San Francisco, where the Panthers try to post their longest winning streak in eight years against a refreshed Niners club coming off its bye.
Carolina has racked up at least 30 points in each contest of its current four- game winning streak while allowing just an average of just 12 points per game in that span. That has the Panthers 5-3 on the season and just a game back of the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC South.
For San Francisco, it returns to the field for the first time since a dominating win over Jacksonville in London on Oct. 27. That 42-10 rout was the 49ers' fifth win in a row and they have posted at least 31 points in each victory while giving up more than 17 points just once.
Looking to claim six victories in a row for the first time since an eight-game run during the 2011 campaign, San Francisco is 6-2 on the year and has prevented 8-1 Seattle from running away with the NFC West.
The Panthers have also been keeping pace in their division and have two games still to play against the Saints. Carolina is coming off a victory over another division foe, besting the Atlanta Falcons 34-10 last Sunday.
Cam Newton threw for 249 yards and overcame two interceptions by throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen while also running for an eight-yard score.
Drayton Florence had a 38-yard interception return for a score in the fourth quarter to lock things up.
Carolina amassed 131 rushing yards in the victory and picked off Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan three times. Star linebacker Luke Kuechly and fellow LB Thomas Davis added interceptions.
The Panthers are now looking to win five straight for the first time since a six-game run from Oct. 3-Nov. 13, 2005.
"We have been doing some good things," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. "Now we are facing the NFC Champion and it is going to be a very big test to see where we are."
Few teams are as good a measuring stick as the Niners, who ran for 221 yards and got a pair of rushing touchdowns from both quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore in the victory over the Jaguars.
Gore ran for 71 yards, Kaepernick added 54 yards on the ground to his 164 passing yards and running back Kendall Hunter rushed for 84 yards on nine carries.
"The offense came out strong and put together great drives," said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
"It felt like a huge stage," he said. "Wembley has a great tradition and status as a venue. It was an amazing experience for the players and me personally. At the beginning when they played the two anthems it felt like I was at the Olympics. I always wanted to be in the Olympics."
The Panthers are visiting San Francisco for the first time since 2004 and bring with them a three-game series winning streak. They recorded a 23-20 win at home in the last encounter on Oct. 24, 2010 and lead the all-time series 10-7.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The 49ers and Panthers might as well play this weekend with mirrors attached to their helmets given the similar styles.
Both clubs have young quarterbacks that can move the ball with their arms and feet.
Newton has thrown 13 passing touchdowns and scored another four on the ground while averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He has 10 touchdowns (7 passing, 3 running) over Carolina's win streak and is the only player in NFL history with 50-plus passing scores and 25-plus rushing touchdowns in his first 40 career games.
Thanks in part to Newton, as well as leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (519 yards, 1 TD) and Mike Tolbert, Carolina is eighth in football with 130.1 rushing yards per game and is 11th in scoring at 25.5 points per game.
Tolbert has been a big part of that scoring, logging four rushing touchdowns and adding another two through the air. Five of those scores have come in the last four games.
Carolina's ground game also got a boost last weekend with the return of Jonathan Stewart, who had been out since December of last year due to an ankle injury. He ran for 43 yards on nine carries versus the Falcons while catching three balls for 22 yards.
The 49ers are no slouches either, ranking fifth in the NFL with 27.3 PPG and also have the league's top ground attack at 153.0 YPG. Gore is leading the way with 618 yards and seven touchdowns, including back-to-back two-TD games.
Kaepernick has run for 294 yards and three touchdowns, while Hunter and Anthony Dixon have combined for five scores on the ground.
Defensively, the Panthers rank second in points allowed (13.3 PPG), second in rush defense (79.1 YPG) and third in total defense (299.9 YPG). They limited the Falcons to 289 net yards last weekend, including just 78 on the ground, and are led by Kuechly and his 64 tackles and three interceptions.
Davis has added 61 tackles with three sacks and a pick, while defensive end Chris Johnson had a sack versus Atlanta to give him 19 1/2 and seven forced fumbles in his last 21 games.
San Francisco is fourth in the NFL with just 18.1 points allowed per game and is sixth overall in total defense, giving up 325.1 yards per game. The Niners have perhaps the most talented and deepest linebacking group in all of football and could have the talented but troubled Aldon Smith back on the field.
Smith leads the 49ers with 4 1/2 sacks, but has not played since Sept. 22 versus Indianapolis. He appeared in the game despite his arrest just days earlier on suspicion of driving under the influence and possession of marijuana, but left the team following the game to seek help for a substance- abuse problem.
Taken seventh overall by San Francisco in the 2011 draft, Smith logged 14 sacks as a rookie and totaled 19 1/2 last year. He returned to the club during the bye looking to continue his career.
"I'm getting there. Every day is a step closer to where I want to be," said Smith.
"I've gotten a lot of support, from my family, friends, the organization, teammates and everything. It really says a lot that people care about me outside the field, that they care about me as a person."
Fellow defensive leaders such as linebacker Patrick Willis and tackle Justin Smith are glad to see him back, but Aldon Smith's status for this game is still unclear.
"We'll assess that. It's been clear, and Aldon has been to, that this is a thing that's being taken day-by-day," said Harbaugh.
The 49ers welcomed back a trio of players during the break as well, including wide receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree as well as cornerback Eric Wright.
Manningham made 42 catches in 12 games last season before sustaining a season- ending torn ACL in late December, while Wright has been on the reserve/non- football injury list to tend to a personal matter after signing a one-year deal with the 49ers earlier in the month.
Both could play this weekend and the Niners made room for Wright by waiving cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
Crabtree is also back at practice for the first time since suffering a torn Achilles during Organized Team Activities in the offseason and could return by mid-to-late November.
These two clubs current success and similar styles gives this game the potential to be a good one and some could go as far as to say a possible playoff preview.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, it won't be played on even ground. The Niners are home and well rested, even after a trip to London a few weeks ago. San Francisco can also match Carolina's momentum despite the time off.
While Carolina likes to win games on the ground, the Niners' potential to do it through both the passing and running game will be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 23, Panthers 16
11/07 14:48:56 ET