The Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers are on a combined nine-game winning streak, buoyed by two strong defenses. Sunday, they face off in San Francisco at 4:05 p.m. ET, with several fantasy question marks. Take a look:
Start if you're desperate: Steve Smith, Mike Tolbert
Newton has been an excellent fantasy quarterback this year, with three games of 27 or more points, and at least 12 in every game except his Week 5 disaster against the Arizona Cardinals. No one likes facing the San Francisco defense, but a quarterback as successful as Newton is a start regardless. ... Olsen is tenth in average fantasy points among tight ends, with games of 1 and 4 points and others of 12 and 14. But he's been a popular target in short-yardage situations, which the Panthers have been attempting more often. That should help Olsen's protection. ... Gano is 12-for-12 on field-goal attempts this season, including four kicks of 50-plus yards (for those whose leagues award long-yardage bonus points). He's been very productive, and in a game that doesn't promise a wealth of touchdowns, he could have a lot of chances. ... No defense that is playing this week has averaged more fantasy points per game than Carolina's. You might consider benching them against a Denver Broncos-level offense, but anything less and they're a must-start.
Smith hasn't had a truly big fantasy day all season, with his best outing being a 69-yard, one-score game against the St. Louis Rams in Week 7. He's Newton's favorite toy, but against a 49ers defense that seventh-best in the NFL against opposing wide receivers, he's hard to rely on. ... Tolbert is the most startable of the Panthers' three running backs, despite the fact that he is the least likely to get big yards; with six touchdowns in his last six games, he's pretty obviously the Panthers back most likely to score a touchdown, which makes up for a lot of yards.
Williams and Stewart will be fighting each other for yards for as long as both are even marginally healthy. That could easily make for a successful real-football setup, but fantasy owners should check out. ... LaFell has had a couple huge games this year (53 yards, two scores in Week 3; 107 yards and a touchdown in Week 6), but has been largely quiet outside of that. Anything is possible, but counting on big performance from a middling wide receiver against a top defense is not a winning strategy.
Start if you're desperate: Anquan Boldin
Kaepernick was looking rough early in the season, with three single-digit fantasy outings in his first five games. But he's averaged more than 20 in his last three, including contests against the decent defenses of Arizona and Tennessee. He's accounted for six touchdowns in that time -- three passing, three rushing -- and appears to be back on the track he started last season. ... Gore has four touchdowns in his last two games, seven on the season, and is on pace for more than 1,200 yards. It was a rough start to 2013, but Gore has been electric since Week 2, propelling himself into a must-start role. ... He missed the team's game in Week 3, but outside of that, Davis has averaged a touchdown a game and more than 70 receiving yards this season. Of the 49ers nine receiving touchdowns, Davis has seven. ... The early season wasn't kind to much of anyone on San Francisco, including the 49ers defense, which had only 14 fantasy points through three weeks, but has averaged almost that total in their five games since.
The season-opening 208-yard, one-touchdown performance by Boldin seemed to herald big things, especially as the team's only real wide-receiver weapon while injured guys recovered, but he's had only one decent game since (and even that one was six weeks ago). He's averaging four fantasy points a game since Week 4. It's hard to rely on him for much.
Manningham is expected back in Sunday's game, which has to be nice for Kaepernick, but he hasn't played since December of last year, and it'll likely take him time to get into the swing of an offense that he never really found his footing in. His first game, against a stout Panthers defense, isn't the time to try him. ... A couple seasons ago, the 49ers kicker position was a record-setting spot, with a middling offense that lent itself to insane numbers of field-goal attempts. This year, though, Dawson has only nine field goals, and only a 75 percent success rate. There's got to be a better option on the waiver wire.