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Know thy Enemy: Carolina Panthers - Sunday, December 2

We'll roll into this weekend with a rundown on the San Francisco 49ers Week 13 opponent, the Carolina Panthers.  While the Panthers had a down year last year, I'll always remember them as the upstart expansion team that gave the 49ers all kinds of trouble in their first two years in the league (Carolina was 3-1 against the 49ers in 1995 and 1996).  However, much has changed since then, including the addition of one of the newer SB Nation blogs, Cat Scratch Reader, run by Jaxon.

Last year was a tough year for the Panthers.  They were a team many had pegged for the Super Bowl.  This is from The Sports Guy's NFL Preview column, where he gave them a thumbs up:

I have yet to read a convincing case about why they won't be representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLI. Which makes me not want to pick them, actually. By the way, everyone in the NFC knows not to trash-talk Steve Smith, right? We're all clear on this, correct?

Well all those columnists certainly got it wrong.  All the primary starters missed at least a couple of games due to injury and there running game never really got off the ground, finishing 19th in Rushing DVOA.  In spite of having the 5th best overall defense and 4th best weighted, the Panthers struggled to an 8-8 record and no playoff berth.

Much of the Panthers losses seemed to be replaceable players including Kris Mangum, Chris Weinke and Meshawn (praise be to whatever higher power had the sense of humor to do that).  They lost an apparent high motor guy in Chris Draft at linebacker, but it seemed like there bigger offseason issues were not in the players they lost, but guys like Donovan Darius, whom the were not able to get signed.

While David Carr will not be a starter (at least in the near future), he was definitely a high profile free agent pickup.  Carr has spent most of his NFL career flat on his ass in Houston.  If Delhomme were to get hurt or prove ineffective, Carr could very well get a legit shot to run with things.  While it might be easy to declare Carr a bust and be done with it, you could just as easily argue for extenuating circumstances in Houston.  While I like Jake Delhomme and hope he does not get hurt, I can't help but be mighty curious to see how Carr would look at the helm of the Panthers offense.

While the Panthers did not make a huge impact in free agency, I think they did a very solid job in the draft.  I was one of those here on the Dwayne Jarrett bandwagon and think that he could make an impact in year 1, especially without the pressure of being a starter right off the bat.  Jon Beason is going to get a chance to start at OLB right away, while Ryan Kalil looks to be groomed as the center of the future.  While I'm clearly a big fan of the 49ers draft, I am impressed with Carolina's haul.

2007 Questions & Answers
Well, it will be interesting to see short a leash Jake Delhomme is on, considering Carr must give the Panthers coaching staff confidence if they have to make a change (or not if he's just not a good QB).

I liked DeAngelo Williams coming out of college and thought he and Foster could make an excellent duo in the backfield.  Last year seemed to be a start and stop kind of year, so I'm curious to see what happens if both are 100% healthy and contributing in the backfield.  Foster and Williams are both very good running backs, and I think both will make solid contributions.

The big question after last year is will the offense as a whole make more of a contribution and back up a very good defense.  I'm still stunned at last year's turn of events for the Panthers and I see them bouncing back this year, if they're able to stay healthy.  If healthy, this is a team that could give the Saints a run for their money in the NFC South.  While I only root for the 49ers, I'll definitely be pulling for these guys to have a solid season.

vs. San Francisco
Of course all that goes out the window at 10:05 pacific time, Week 13.  In this, the first game of December, we'll be coming down the stretch, potentially battling for playoff positioning.  The 49ers and Panthers are both potential playoff teams, so this could be a HUGE matchup with wild card and seeding implications.  Coming off 3 straight divisional games, the 49ers could use this game to spring board into the home stretch with this game capping a stretch of 4 road opponents in 5 games.  With that in mind, Frank Gore strengthens his MVP candidancy with 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the 49ers grind out a 20-19 victory (Alex Smith takes a safety in the 2nd quarter).  The non-divisional game I'm looking forward to most is versus Cincinnati, but this is a close second.