Carolina playing as underdogs

STEVE REED AP Sports Writer Published:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- It doesn't surprise safety Mike Mitchell that the Carolina Panthers are only the third home underdog in the NFL divisional playoffs in the past 20 years.

"We haven't gotten much respect all year," he said. "It looks like we still have people to prove wrong."

The Panthers (12-4) are playing the no-respect card after opening the week as a 1-point underdog against San Francisco (13-4), despite defeating the 49ers 10-9 at Candlestick Park on Nov. 10.

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said the 49ers are likely favored because of their playoff experience.

This is the third straight season San Francisco has been to the playoffs under coach Jim Harbaugh, and most of the players have returned from last year's NFC championship team. The Panthers will make their first playoff appearance since 2008 under third-year coach Ron Rivera.

That doesn't seem to bother Rivera.

"No, because two years ago (the 49ers) didn't have any playoff experience and they did pretty well," Rivera said.

Harbaugh, who was teammates with Rivera with the Chicago Bears, also downplayed the experience factor.

"I've always really felt that where you're going is a heck of a lot more important than where you've come from," Harbaugh said.

Rivera said the Panthers got some playoff-type experience by winning a number of big games during the season -- they beat New England and New Orleans along with San Francisco -- to battle back from a 1-3 start to win the NFC South and secure a first-round bye.

The Panthers sacked Colin Kaepernick six times and limited him to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing in the first meeting in a win that defensive end Greg Hardy said "proved we were a contender."

But Rivera said Kaepernick's play has vastly improved since.

"He is playing with a lot of confidence right now," Rivera said. "Maybe we'll get lucky and catch him on a bad day."

CRABTREE, DAVIS IMPACT: The 49ers lost tight end Vernon Davis to a concussion early in the last meeting with Carolina, while top 2012 wide receiver Michael Crabtree had yet to return from a torn right Achilles tendon that required surgery in May.

In five regular-season games since his return, Crabtree had 19 receptions for 284 yards and a touchdown -- and he caught eight passes for 125 yards in a 23-20 wild-card win at Green Bay last week.

SMITH'S LEFT KNEE: Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said he will play despite a sprained left knee. Smith returned to practice this week, but isn't sure what to expect when he steps on the field today.

CAROLINA RUSH: Carolina led the NFL with 60 sacks this season, including a franchise-record nine their last time out against Atlanta in Week 17. Hardy, who goes by "The Kraken," has been a beast of late with eight sacks in the past three games.

LB MATCHUP: Today's game features two of the game's best middle linebackers in Carolina's Luke Kuechly and San Francisco's Patrick Willis, both selected to the Pro Bowl. Kuechly has more tackles than anyone in the NFL since coming into the league as a first-round pick in 2012.

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