San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick grew up on his last possession last week against the Green Bay Packers. He was 4-for-4 on the drive and made two big plays with his legs. And he understood not to leave any time on the clock for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The 49ers are a better team than the first time they faced Carolina. Having wide receiver Michael Crabtree back is going to help them tremendously.
In the first meeting with the Panthers, Kaepernick was sacked six times. The 49ers were just 15 percent on third downs. That's atrocious. Tight end Vernon Davis got hurt and wasn't a factor.
Give credit to Carolina head coach Ron Rivera, a Marina, Calif., native, for coming up with a great defensive scheme. When you watch the tape, you see how Carolina forced Kaepernick inside and did not allow him to get to the outside.
The Panthers had 60 sacks this year. They can rush four guys and play a zone defense. That means there are more eyes on the quarterback. They bring a different element than Green Bay on defense.
Kaepernick made plays with his legs when Green Bay turned its back. When you look at Carolina, it has two of the best tackling linebackers in space in the NFL.
This will be a defensive game this week. Field position will be critical. Every third down will be critical. Special teams will be crucial.
I like the 49ers in this game. I like the experience they possess in the playoffs. And Aldon Smith is back on defense for the 49ers. He didn't play much in that first game. All these are factors.
I don't like the fact that receiver Steve Smith is banged up for Carolina. He can stretch the defense. He's the guy that you are concerned with. But he's not right.
The 49ers have to withstand the energy of the Carolina crowd in the first quarter. They don't have to score. But they have to make a first down and soften the crowd. You don't want to go three-and-out on your first drive.
When the 49ers look at Carolina, they're looking in the mirror at themselves on defense.
New Orleans @ Seattle
In two of their past four games, the Seahawks scored only a combined 27 points against the 49ers and the Cardinals. The Saints have the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL, but there has to be some concern.
I think the Saints found a formula for how to win on the road last week against Philadelphia. Drew Brees only threw the ball 30 times last week as the Saints found their running game. And that's what they have to do in Seattle.
The Seahawks have been vulnerable at times against the run. They have some cracks now. Even if you cannot run the ball, you have to try. You can't go into Seattle and throw the ball 40 or 50 times against that secondary.
In the teams' first meeting, New Orleans found itself down 17 points early. You can't do that in Seattle, not with the mythical 12th man throwing Skittles from the sky. He just hovers around.
It's quiet up there right now. Seattle is kind of laying low, not saying a lot. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is 15-1 at home. This is a team that's getting healthier at the right time. I like Seattle.
San Diego @ Denver
This is the worst matchup the Broncos could have had. Why? Because San Diego has the formula to beat the Broncos. In two games against Denver, it has held the ball for over 38 minutes per game.
The Chargers have converted 44 and 50 percent on third downs. They have run the ball for 131 and 177 yards in the two meetings. Peyton Manning had just nine possessions in one game and 11 in the other.
That's not good. Manning generally gets 12 to 13 possessions. The Chargers offense is not allowing Manning to get back on the field because Denver's defense can't get off it. It's kind of like stall ball.
If you're the Chargers, you're sending Philip Rivers to the stadium in a limo. He's 6-2 in Denver. I've got a bolo tie for him.
Talk about a hot team, the Chargers are a hot team.
If things don't go well for Denver, Manning will get blamed.
The spotlight is so bright that some guys can't play under pressure. When they don't, Manning takes the brunt of the criticism. That is the aura he brings when he becomes your quarterback.
I've got San Diego winning this game.
Indianapolis @ New England
If the Colts turn the ball over three times like they did last week against Kansas City, they're not winning this game. You can't give Tom Brady three more possessions.
Brady is the best in the NFL in adjusting to the system and personnel it has. He's been able to deal with a new coordinator every two years.
As much as we say Manning is the Broncos' coordinator, Brady is New England's coordinator. He's the one player that stands pat.
Brady is a hiring firm. When he's your quarterback, he's going to find you a better job down the road.
The Patriots are beat up on defense. Then again, no one in the AFC that's left plays defense.
The one thing I know is that the T.Y. Hilton hotel that showed up last week for the Colts will be in renovation mode this week. Bill Belichick will not allow that hotel to open up.
Andrew Luck will have to find another guy to throw the ball to.
The hourglass is running on out Brady. He knows it. He has to start winning playoff games now if he wants to get back to the Super Bowl. I believe he's one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
I like the Patriots to advance this week.