CAROLINA PANTHERS AT SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
SERIES HISTORY: 20th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 12-7. These teams were both in the NFC West when Carolina joined the NFL, so they met twice a season from 1995 to 2001. Last year, the 49ers were the opponent for Carolina's home opener and the Panthers won 46-27. San Francisco won the lone postseason matchup, in Charlotte in 2013.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Carolina QB Cam Newton, who had shoulder surgery in March, got just one series of work in the preseason, so his readiness is a question. But he has good weapons in TE Greg Olsen, WR Kelvin Benjamin and rookie RB Christian McCaffrey.
The 49ers might not have the offensive firepower to match points with the Panthers, but they have the type of athleticism in their defensive front seven to make things tough on Newton.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. 49ers DT Solomon Thomas. The intriguing aspect of Thomas, the No. 3 pick in the draft, is his ability to come at quarterbacks from just about every angle. That includes the interior of the line, a unique path of attack in that it puts him in the quarterback's vision at all times. How critical is it to pressure Newton? He threw 12 interceptions in the nine starts that he lost last year, and just two in the six starts that he won.
--49ers TE George Kittle vs. Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly. The Panthers struggled to contain tight ends last season, giving up 12 touchdowns, the second-most in the league. One of the 12 came when the 49ers' Vance McDonald stunned them with a 75-yarder in Week 2. The 49ers let McDonald go in a preseason trade with the believe that Kittle, a rookie, can be immediately productive.
PANTHERS NOTABLE ROOKIE: Running back Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers aren't deflecting suggestions that McCaffrey, a former Stanford standout, will hold key roles in the offense to alleviate pressure on quarterback Cam Newton. He also might help as a return man. McCaffrey's first NFL game will involve a matchup with 49ers DE Solomon Thomas, his former roommate at Stanford.
49ERS NOTABLE ROOKIE: Linebacker Reuben Foster. The 49ers believe they stole him when he fell to the late first round. His big hit on fellow rookie Dalvin Cook on the first play of the third preseason game is expected to be one of many that measure on the Richter scale.
FAST FACTS: Carolina QB Cam Newton passed for 3,509 yards in 2016 & has at least 3,000 yards in all six career seasons. He's the only player in NFL history with 20,000 passing yards (21,772) and 3,000 rushing yards (3,566) in his first six seasons. In the last game vs. the 49ers, he threw for 353 yards and four TDs. ... Carolina TE Greg Olsen had a team-high 1,073 receiving yards in 2016 and became the first tight end in NFL history to record three consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards. He had 122 receiving yards and a TD in the last meeting. ... DE Julius Peppers, 37, rejoins Carolina. He spent his first eight seasons with the team (2002-09) and ranks fifth in NFL history with 143.5 sacks. ... QB Brian Hoyer makes his San Francisco debut. In six games with Chicago in 2016, he passed for 1,445 yards, six TDs and no interceptions, with a 98 rating. ... 49ers RB Carlos Hyde rushed for a career-high 988 yards and six TDs last season. ... WR Pierre Garcon makes his 49ers debut. He caught 79 passes for 1,041 yards with Washington last season. He led the NFL with 113 receptions under Shanahan with Washington in 2013. ... LB Elvis Dumervil makes his 49ers debut as well. He has 99 career sacks, third most among active players.
PREDICTION: The running games are likely to decide this one, and Jonathan Stewart and McCaffrey look like a winning combo.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 20-17.