The optimistic 49ers fan
Sunday's loss was to a very good Carolina Panthers team who had already won four in a row. Heading into the game, the Panthers had the 2nd best defense in the league. They were 2nd against the run and 4th against the pass. They possess one of the best front seven in the NFL and accomplished a lot against an already struggling passing attack, keeping the 49ers offense out of the end zone and sacking Colin Kaepernick seven times. The Panthers offense had scored 30 or more points in each of their previous four games and their defense had not allowed more than 15 points in any of those contests. The Panthers were a formidable opponent.
The 49ers defense only allowed 10 points to a surging Panthers offense and held quarterback Cam Newton to a mere 169 yards passing, a 50% completion percentage, no touchdowns, an interception, and sacked him 4 times. It was a great performance against a quarterback who had averaged 229 yards passing, a 72.3% completion percentage, 7 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions in his previous four outings.
While wide receiver Mario Manningham returned to the 49ers on Sunday, the team lost some key players during the defensive battle with the Panthers. Tight end Vernon Davis and safety Eric Reid were both knocked out of the game with concussions. Defensive tackle Ray McDonald, a key player in the 49ers defensive front, also left the game with an ankle injury. Other injuries included left guard Mike Iupati, who would return to the game, and tight end Garrett Celek who suffered a hamstring injury.
These injuries coupled with wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who remains sidelined after an Achilles injury during the offseason, left the 49ers far from complete against the Panthers and they still only lost by one point. They are only 2.5 games behind the Seattle Seahawks, who still have the Saints at home and a road game against the 49ers on their schedule. So the division is not completely out of the question yet.
The Panthers, now 6-3, are proving to be one of the hotter teams in the NFC. They are not only in control of their wildcard playoff destiny, but even have the New Orleans Saints looking over their shoulders in the NFC South race and the race to the number two playoff seed in the NFC.
The pessimistic 49ers fan
The Carolina Panthers started the season 1-3, losing to Seattle, Buffalo, and Arizona. After that, they won four straight before facing the 49ers. However, those four wins came against Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta. Not exactly elite competition. Had the 49ers been an elite opponent, this matchup should not have been close.
The loss to Carolina raises a lot of questions about the 49ers. The 49ers passing attack ranks dead last in the league. The last victory against a quality team was during week one, when the 49ers squeaked by the Green Bay Packers 34-28. In fact four of their wins came against teams that are .500 or under. When facing teams over .500, the 49ers are a mediocre 2-3. One of those victories was against Arizona, who did not rise above .500 until this past weekend when they defeated the Houston Texans by 3.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was a big part of the 49ers' Super Bowl run last season, has been absolutely abysmal since week one. His predecessor is now leading the Kansas City Chiefs, who are the only undefeated team left in the NFL. One has to wonder if Kaepernick would be performing better if he were looking over his shoulder at someone like Alex Smith rather than Colt McCoy and McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
During the 49ers' week one battle against Green Bay, Kaepernick passed for 412 yards, a 69.2% completion percentage, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Since then he has averaged almost 158 yards per game, never passing for more than 252 yards. His completion percentage has been 53.6% and he has thrown 6 touchdowns and the same number of interceptions.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick was pressured on 10 of his drop backs against Panthers. He did not complete a pass on any of them. He scrambled once, threw two incompletions, was intercepted once, and sacked six times.
Seattle leads the 49ers by 2.5 games and four of their final six games are at home, where they are nearly impossible to beat. They could easily run away with the division if the 49ers stumble again. At this point, Seattle has to be the favorite to win the NFC West leaving the 49ers fighting for a wildcard spot and starting the playoffs on the road -- should they make it. If Seattle wins home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, it will be nearly impossible for any team -- including the 49ers -- to knock them out of the postseason.