W2W4: 49ers at Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wide receiver Steve Smith changes the subject when you ask about the Carolina Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl run or the last time they made the playoffs in 2008.

He argues past history has nothing to do with the current team that faces the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC divisional playoff game on Sunday at 1:05 p.m.

And he's right, to a degree.

But to ignore past history completely would be a mistake as it pertains to learning from past successes as the Panthers had in 2003 and failures as they had in 2008.

"History is important," said left tackle Jordan Gross -- he and Smith are the only players remaining from the 2003 Super Bowl run. "If you don't learn from good things or bad things you did, you're bound to repeat the bad.

"What happened then doesn't have any impact on us now, which is probably [Smith's] point. But it's important to know it's very important to win at home in the playoffs."

The Panthers did that in 2003, defeating the Dallas Cowboys at home before traveling to St. Louis and Philadelphia. They didn't do that in 2008, losing 33-13 to Arizona in a game plagued with turnovers.

Only 10 players remain from the 2008 team that began a string of four straight losing seasons before this one.

"It was funny," Gross said. "That year, we were kind of expected to be good, and we were good. And it was a huge letdown when we lost in a big way. This year it's like we've snuck up on 12-4. It was really slow the way everybody got excited about the team, the belief.

"But the guys that were here remember the lesson about how important it is to win at home."

With that, here are my five keys for Carolina against San Francisco:

Protect home turf: The Panthers earned the right to host a first-round game by winning 11 of their final 12 games, including seven in a row at home. They are allowing only 12 points a game at home compared to 18.1 on the road. It likely will take that kind of effort against the 49ers.

Red zone: This goes both ways. The 49ers have converted 56.4 of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns this season to rank 11th in the league. The Panthers held them to three field goals in the first meeting, which was key. Carolina has struggled lately in the red zone but on the season has converted 58 percent to rank seventh. The team that is most effective here likely will win.

Pressure Kaepernick: As much as Carolina coach Ron Rivera says quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a bad day the first time these teams met, his second-ranked defense was a big reason. The Panthers sacked Kaepernick six times, forcing him to step into the pocket where defenders were waiting instead of letting him get outside as Green Bay did. Kaepernick rushed for 98 yards against the Packers to advance. He'll face a much more disciplined defense this week, and statistics show Kaepernick struggles against top 16 defenses this season.

Big stage: Much has been said about this being the first playoff game for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, but he's been in big games before (see BCS National Championship and SEC Championship). He still in my opinion is key. When he has a good game the Panthers typically do, too. That he's playing at home where his statistics are considerably better should help. My guess is he'll have to rush for at least 40 yards and a touchdown for Carolina to advance.

Wild-card factor: Special teams often get overlooked, but Carolina's have been consistently good all season. The one thing the Panthers haven't done is return a kick for a touchdown. Ted Ginn Jr. came close to breaking one several times against his former team at San Francisco. The teams are so closely matched, it could come down to that.