SANTA CLARA — Enough about the cold. Let's talk about the heat.
The 49ers won't experience any weather conditions to compare to the near-zero atmosphere of Lambeau Field last weekend. But they are bracing for something perhaps more intimidating: the relentless pass pressure of the Carolina Panthers, who will host the Niners this Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game.
“As I stand here today, I really believe that they are the most talented front seven that we have played,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday. “And that's in large part a great share of what makes them so effective.”
Harbaugh is unlikely to be contradicted by San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, or by his offensive linemen, all of whom were treated poorly by the Panthers in a 10-9 loss at Candlestick Park in Week 10.
Carolina sacked Kaepernick six times in that game; no other team has gotten him on the ground more than four times this season.
And yet it was nothing out of the ordinary for the Panthers, who led the NFL with 60 sacks this season.
They dumped the Giants' Eli Manning seven times in Week 3, nailed New Orleans' Drew Brees six times in a Week 16 showdown that handed Carolina the NFC South title, and finished the season by burying Atlanta's Matt Ryan nine times in Week 17. That last one is a team record.
The 49ers' hopes of playing in the NFC Championship game for the third consecutive year rest largely on their ability to keep Kaepernick upright. It won't be easy against a defense that is equal parts raw ability and aggressive scheme, as devised by coordinator Sean McDermott and head coach Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker.
“Very sound. No, I'm not saying it's just pure talent,” Harbaugh said. “It's a share, like I said. Definitely their scheme and their understanding of it, how it's coached, how they play together as a unit.”