SAN FRANCISCO -- Some NFL analysts remain skeptical of the Carolina Panthers because their five wins are against opponents with a combined record of 8-33.
But did you know their upcoming opponent, San Francisco, has won five straight against opponents that are a combined 13-28? And you don't hear much about it?
Here are five keys as the Panthers (5-3) and 49ers (6-2) prepare to meet at 4:05 (ET) p.m. on Sunday at Candlestick Park:
Stop the run: Both teams like to run -- a lot. San Francisco averages 33.8 rushes a game, the most of any team in the league. The 49ers are the only team in the league to average more than 150 yards a game, 153 if you're keeping score. The Panthers rank eighth with 130 yards a game. Both quarterbacks like to run as well. So the team that stops the run the best should be in the driver's seat. Carolina ranks second against the run; San Francisco 12th.
Colin vs. Cam: Since Week 6, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Carolina's Cam Newton have been two of the hottest quarterbacks in the league. Kaepernick ranks first in quarterback rating during that span at 94.1. Newton ranks third at 83.5. Newton's biggest edge is on third down where he has a league-best rating of 120.4. Kaepernick is fourth at 101.2. In all likelihood, this one comes down to which has the better game. Kaepernick relies more on his legs than Newton. Forcing him to throw will be key.
Newton's law: For the most part this season, Newton has beaten teams with an efficient short-passing game. He's running less, which coach Ron Rivera says is by choice. This might be the game to turn him loose against an aggressive San Francisco defense.
Beware of Smith: San Francisco pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith is back after a month in rehab. The last time the Panthers faced a player coming off a layoff -- Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington from a four-game suspension -- he had nine tackles and two sacks to totally disrupt the Carolina offense. Smith is better than Washington.
Control the clock: A big part of Carolina's winning recipe the past four games has been controlling the clock. The league's leader in time of possession with a 34:00 to 26:00 advantage has had the ball an average of about 10.5 minutes longer during this winning streak. The best defense sometimes is a good offense.