The San Francisco 49ers return from the bye week to host the surging Carolina Panthers this Sunday at Candlestick Park. The teams haven’t faced each other since 2010, but both are currently on multi-game win streaks. Sunday’s matchup is a pivotal game for both teams as they look to move up in the NFC playoff race.
Here are the top 10 storylines to track on Sunday.
10. Back from the Bye
What new wrinkles will we see from the 49ers coaches, or will we see any at all? Under the leadership of Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco is 1-0-1 coming off the bye week. The current team looks to be the healthiest it has been all season. With the 49ers on a five-game win streak, the coaches have talked about incorporating new players into the lineup. The extra week of preparation comes at a perfect time with a red-hot Panthers team coming to town with wins in each of their last four games.9. Inactives
According to Harbaugh, the 49ers will only have one, non-healthy inactive player on Sunday. Rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton
has been ruled out. Although he’s still recovering from a broken foot, the fourth-round pick is out of his walking boot and still figures into the team’s plans in the final weeks of the season. Joining Patton in street clothes will likely be a few talented players. On defense, for example, will the team dress rookie defensive lineman Tank Carradine
and veteran cornerback Eric Wright
? Harbaugh didn’t want to reveal those decisions during the week. “Stay tuned,” he said. Don’t worry, coach, we will.8. Star Watch
Carolina’s first-round draft pick has earned the attention of San Francisco’s coaches and players. Star Lotulelei, the No. 14 overall selection, is having an effective rookie season for the Panthers. He commands double-teams, right tackle Anthony Davis
noted. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman even singled out Lotulelei during his mid-week press conference. The 49ers coaches have often used the “best we’ve faced” label when discussing opposing defensive lines. True to form, Harbaugh and Roman praised Carolina’s defensive front as the best matchup they’ll face. As for Lotulelei, he has recorded 24 tackles and one sack in eight games.7. Ted Ginn Return
The former 49ers wide receiver returns to Candlestick Park to face his old teammates. The speedy receiver has enjoyed a productive start to his Carolina career. Ginn has the third-most receiving yards (367) on the Panthers. That’s 20 yards fewer than stalwart receiver Steve Smith. Ginn has averaged a team-high 17.5 yards per catch, including six receptions of 20-plus yards. The 49ers defense has only allowed 20 receptions of 20-plus yards on the season and ranks No. 8 in the league, allowing 221 yards per game. Another intriguing aspect to the matchup is Ginn facing former high school and college teammate, Donte Whitner
. The two players remain life-long friends.6. Kuechly on the Rise
Carolina’s second-year linebacker, Luke Kuechly, will be all over the field just like Patrick Willis
and NaVorro Bowman
will be for the 49ers. Kuechly has recorded 64 tackles on the year and also has a team-high three interceptions. The 49ers coaches, Harbaugh in particular, know him well. San Francisco’s head coach recalled trying to recruit the Panthers inside linebacker out of high school to attend Stanford. Kuechly, however, chose Boston College and has gone on to enjoy an impressive start to his NFL career. 5. Just for Kicks
Who will return kicks for the 49ers this week? It’s another guessing game Harbaugh happily wants the opponent and the media to play. Kyle Williams
was added to the injury report with a knee injury that has him listed as probable for Sunday’s game. The team used Anthony Dixon
in London and the fourth-year running back responded with a career-long, 47-yard return against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Second-year running back LaMichael James
is an option to play as a returner. He practiced on it all week and Harbaugh said the team is looking to increase his special teams opportunities.4. Three-headed Monster
Carolina will have a fresh running attack. Three running backs will all have a gameday role, and all three are talented. DeAngelo Williams leads the way with 518 rushing yards, but hard-charging Mike Tolbert has a share of Carolina’s touchdown lead with four scores. The Panthers recently added a healthy Jonathan Stewart to the mix. He contributed 43 yards in last week’s lopsided win over the Atlanta Falcons. With a three-headed attack, Carolina is the NFL’s No. 8 rushing attack, averaging 130.1 yards per game. The team doesn’t have to rely on one running back to carry the workload, and all three will be given opportunities to test San Francisco’s improved rush defense.3. Aldon Back?
Another of the many fluid storylines for this week’s game is whether Aldon Smith
will play. Reports say the star pass-rusher will play in 20 to 25 percent of the game, but Harbaugh said he wasn’t aware of such internal discussions. Smith was not on the injury report and appeared to have a strong work week in his return to the team. Harbaugh called it “solid.” Smith leads the team with 4.5 sacks, and that’s after missing the last five games. Smith’s gameday role will be another reason to watch Sunday’s game.2. Manningham RoleMario Manningham
was not listed on the injury report, and it sounded like the play-making receiver was ready to return to the field on Sunday. “Make plays” is the goal for the recently activated wideout. Manningham has not played since Week 16 of the 2012 season, but he’s been making plays in practice and appears to be on track to rejoin his teammates on gameday. The 49ers rank No. 32 in passing yards per game and the return of Manningham could be a well-timed spark for the final eight weeks of the season.1. Kaep-tain America vs. Super Cam
The two quarterbacks in this week’s game have been competitive for some time. Actually, this dates back to the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine. Colin Kaepernick
and Cam Newton shared a hotel room in Indianapolis, but they haven’t shared much conversation since. The competitive QBs will be looking to out-duel each other in their first NFL matchup. Kaepernick and Newton are similar players in size and athleticism, but for now, what will separate one from the other will be whoever wins this Week 10 meeting.