CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It doesn’t surprise safety Mike Mitchell that the Carolina Panthers are only the third home underdog in the NFL divisional playoffs in the past 20 years.
“We haven’t gotten much respect all year,” he said. “It looks like we still have people to prove wrong.”
The Panthers (12-4) are playing the no-respect card after opening the week as a 1-point underdog for Sunday’s game against San Francisco (13-4), despite defeating the 49ers 10-9 at Candlestick Park on Nov. 10.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said the 49ers are likely favored because of their playoff experience.
This is the third consecutive season San Francisco has been to the playoffs under coach Jim Harbaugh, and most of the players have returned from last year’s NFC championship team. The Panthers will make their first playoff appearance since 2008 under third-year coach Ron Rivera.
That doesn’t seem to bother Rivera.
“No, because two years ago (the 49ers) didn’t have any playoff experience and they did pretty well,” Rivera said.
Rivera said the Panthers got some playoff-type experience by winning a number of big games during the season – they beat New England and New Orleans along with San Francisco – to battle back from a 1-3 start to win the NFC South and secure a first-round bye.
The Panthers sacked Colin Kaepernick six times and limited him to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing in the first meeting.
But Rivera said Kaepernick’s play has vastly improved since that performance.
“He is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Rivera said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and catch him on a bad day.”
Kaepernick said he’s eager to bounce back from perhaps the most disappointing game of his career against Carolina. When asked what the Panthers did that was so effective, he said “I think it was more of what we did to ourselves. I didn’t play well.”
Being the home underdogs might not be a bad thing for the Panthers.
According to the Glantz-Culver Line, one of the two home divisional playoff underdogs since the 1994 season was the ‘96 Panthers, who upended the Dallas Cowboys in the very same stadium they’ll face the 49ers in on Sunday.
Five things to watch between the 49ers and Panthers:
CRABTREE, DAVIS IMPACT: The 49ers lost tight end Vernon Davis to a concussion early in the last meeting with Carolina, while top 2012 wide receiver Michael Crabtree had yet to return from a torn right Achilles tendon that required surgery in May.
In five regular-season games since his return, Crabtree had 19 receptions for 284 yards and a touchdown — and he caught eight passes for 125 yards in a 23-20 wild-card win at Green Bay last week.
“Crabtree makes a huge difference,” Davis said.
Davis caught a 28-yard touchdown pass against the Packers, giving him six postseason TDs, tied for second most by a tight end in NFL postseason history.
Harbaugh said their return makes the 49ers “more dangerous.”
SMITH’S LEFT KNEE: Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said he will play despite a sprained left knee. Smith returned to practice this week, but isn’t sure what to expect when he steps on the field Sunday.
“It’s not about can I go, it’s about how confident do I feel when I am going? I will play Sunday,” Smith said. “But it’s how much of that I don’t worry about the knee. That’s when the confidence increases.”
NEWTON’S FIRST: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has thrived in the national spotlight in college and on big stages like Monday night this season. But this will be the third-year quarterback’s first foray into the NFL postseason, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the pressure.
“It’s simply about seizing the moment,” Newton said.
PROTECTING KAEPERNICK: Carolina led the NFL with 60 sacks this season, including a franchise-record nine their last time out against Atlanta in Week 17. Hardy, who goes by “The Kraken,” has been a beast of late with eight sacks in the past three games.
LINEBACKER MATCHUP: Sunday’s game features two of the game’s best middle linebackers in Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and San Francisco’s Patrick Willis, both selected to the Pro Bowl. Kuechly has more tackles than anyone in the NFL since coming into the league as a first-round pick in 2012.