Line: 49ers -3; 41.5 O/U
When Carolina Has the Ball: Cam Newton's big step forward in 2013 ... was largely a fabrication. Newton didn't fare much differently than he did in 2012. An improved completion percentage came from a slight uptick in accuracy and a focus on shorter throws. Newton actually did less on the ground than in his first two seasons. Of course, Cam Newton was very good in 2012 and 2013. The difference is that the rest of the Panthers finally decided to pull their weight.
Limiting Newton is limiting the Panthers, and the 49ers were able to do a solid job of that during their 10-9 regular season slugfest. Newton was precise enough to drive the Panthers to the winning fourth-quarter score in November. He'll have to make a ton of throws into tight windows, again, against San Francisco's tough pass defense, however. The task gets even tougher if Steve Smith is as hobbled as it appears he might be. Smith was Carolina's only reliable weapon during the first meeting, and if he's marginalized then the 49ers may be able to squeeze the life out of the Panthers' offense.
Carolina's run game has been one of the league's most effective this season, with Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams both able to produce thanks to strong blocking from the Gross-Wharton-Kalil stretch along the offensive line. That side runs straight into the teeth of the Smith "Brothers" and run-plugging NT Glenn Dorsey, so every yard is likely to be as hard-earned as Carolina's 3.5 yards-a-pop effort in Week 10.
When San Francisco Has the Ball: The 49ers felt the squeeze from Carolina's outstanding defense in their prior meeting, but they'll come into this fight armed with a new weapon: Michael Crabtree. The wide receiver still seems creaky when compared to his pre-injury form, but coming slow out of some breaks hasn't prevented him from putting up a pair of 100-yard games since his Week 13 return. He'll likely face tough coverage from Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence, but his sheer physical presence offers a big upgrade from what San Francisco brought to its first meeting. With Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis (who was lost with a concussion during the second quarter in Week 10), Colin Kaepernick won't feel like he is stepping into the Panthers' den with one hand tied behind his back.
Tying up Kaepernick's legs will also be a significant challenge, one that Green Bay's defense wasn't ready for in the Wild Card round. The Panthers are made of sterner stuff, but if the 49ers staff pull out the stops and feature a solid dose of read option along with the ever-present threat of Kaepernick scrambling on passing downs, Carolina's defensive front may have its responses tempered by contain responsibilities. Frank Gore will need all the help he can get to thrive against Luke Kuechly and company, but Kaepernick can be every bit Cam Newton's equal as a two-way threat when he's playing at his best.
The Final Score: San Francisco 17, Carolina 13. The 49ers' edge in offensive weaponry proves just enough to edge a die-hard Panthers team.
Line: Broncos -8; 55 O/U
When Denver Has the Ball: The league's best passing attack against one of the league's most dire secondaries ... what's not to like? Of course, that mismatch didn't yield the expected results in the AFC West rivals' second clash, when the Chargers kept Manning relatively contained en route to a 7-point victory. A lot of that success had to do with the Chargers' offense playing keep-away, but Manning wasn't able to get much going except for throws to Andre Caldwell.
It will fall to San Diego's frequently overmatched corner duo of Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright to limit downfield domination by Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and that will prove an extremely tough task if Manning is back on his game. Welker's return adds even more chain-moving pop, and San Diego's Johnny Patrick is not about to be confused with one of the league's premier slot corners.
The Chargers' greatest success in their second meeting was erasing the Broncos' typically effective ground game. Knowshon Moreno was bottled up to the tune of 19 yards on eight carries while change-of-pace thumper Montee Ball was totally forgotten. It was a performance that was almost completely out of character for a run defense that ranked 31st in DVOA per Football Outsiders, and replicating it will be a challenge if the Broncos commit to establishing Moreno early. The Chargers' defensive ends have had a tendency to get washed out against the run, and success by Moreno will further complicate their goal of disrupting Manning.
When San Diego Has the Ball: Philip Rivers proved this season that he still has the accuracy and quick decision-making ability to helm a highly effective offense. The Broncos' pass defense can be had, and Rivers will likely need an efficient 300-yard day with a couple scores to come out on top. Keenan Allen will need to win his share of battles against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside. Rivers' secret weapon may be slot man Eddie Royal. The Broncos have struggled mightily against slot receivers this season, and Royal may present the Chargers' biggest matchup advantage in the passing game. Von Miller's absence could be keenly felt when the Broncos attempt to pressure Rivers' five-step drop game.
The Chargers' offensive line was completely discounted by preseason prognosticators, and while the unit has received a pass protection break thanks to coach Mike McCoy's quick-throw predilections they deserve full marks for growing into a punishing run-blocking unit. The Chargers' ground game has gone from punchline to punching above its weight class, and Ryan Mathews has shed his soft label to become an effective and sometimes punishing runner. The Broncos' run defense, anchored by DTs Malik Jackson and Terrence "Pot Roast" Knighton, has been a strength, but it hasn't been as effective following the loss of DE Derek Wolfe. Look for the Chargers to try their luck behind both tackles. King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker may be able to overpower their opposite numbers at DE while blunting the Denver pass rush.
The Final Score: Denver 30, San Diego 24. The Chargers will give Denver all they can handle in this divisional rubber match, but Denver's talent edge outside the numbers will prove too much to overcome.