Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Panthers

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's battle of former NFC West rivals between the 49ers and Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, injury impact, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the game.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. Eastern
SITE: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
SURFACE: Grass
RECORDS: 49ers, 3-8, 3-6 in NFC, third place in NFC West; Panthers 4-7, 4-4 in NFC, third place in NFC South
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, JC Pearson

SERIES HISTORY: 16th meeting. The Panthers lead series 8-7. The teams have met just once since the breakup of the old NFC West. The Panthers won that game, 37-27, at San Francisco in 2004.

KEYS TO THE GAME: It's no coincidence that RB Frank Gore's first 100-yard game of the season coincided with the team's best passing output last Sunday. With Gore running hard, QB Trent Dilfer is able to manage the game effectively. Dilfer is also relying on TE Vernon Davis, who has 10 receptions the past two games. ... As long as his back doesn't tighten up again, QB Vinny Testaverde will get the start for the Panthers. Even at 44, he gives Carolina its best chance to move the ball because David Carr is tentative in the pocket. RB DeShaun Foster has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry the past month in large part because opponents flat out don't respect the passing game.

FAST FACTS: Gore has averaged 154.3 rushing yards in his past four December games. ... Testaverde is second among active players with 45,980 passing yards and third with 273 TDs.

BY THE NUMBERS: 200-70 -- The margin by which the Panthers have been outscored in their last seven regular-season home games, all of which are losses. 14 -- The number of yards the 49ers' total yards average rose with a season-high 374 yards against the Cardinals. The 49ers now average 235 yards per game, which still ranks last in the league.

QUOTES TO NOTE
"I'd like to see, with the five weeks remaining after this, that we start a streak, unlike the one we were just in, obviously -- start a winning streak." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan
"Right now we're probably one of the worst teams in the NFL right now, by the way we're playing. I know we're not talent wise; it's just not showing on the field. We've got to get this thing fixed, at least end this season (in a) positive fashion. But a lot of things will have to change in how we're playing." – Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas

49ERS GAME PLAN: The 49ers' game plan is simple, yet last week was the first time it really was put into action. The 49ers need to get the ball into the hands of running back Frank Gore. Gore had a season-high 21 carries, to go along with 11 receptions. The result was 214 yards of total offense and two touchdowns. Against the Panthers, the 49ers again need to feed Gore the ball. Quarterback Trent Dilfer seems to have a good idea of the good that can come out of Gore getting his hands on the ball. Gore is still bothered by a right ankle sprain, but his determination drives him to play hard and produce even if he's not 100 percent healthy. The offensive line has to protect Dilfer, who will also try to utilize the big-play ability of tight end Vernon Davis. Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler did a good job last week of spreading the ball around, but also making sure that Gore got a lot of touches. Defensively, the 49ers will be playing short-handed in the secondary. Cornerback Nate Clements might shadow Panthers receiver Steve Smith, but look for the 49ers to get creative on how they implement their nickel and dime packages. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has a lot of tape for the Panthers to prepare for. The 49ers have at times blitzed a lot and at other times rarely blitzed, intent on playing coverage in the secondary. Undoubtedly, they'll mix it up Sunday against the Panthers, who are expected to start quarterback Vinny Testaverde, in hopes of keeping offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson off-balance.

PANTHERS GAME PLAN: The Panthers had plenty of confidence in their passing game heading into last week thinking Vinny Testaverde was going to start. But when Testaverde woke up with a tight back on Saturday, all of that changed. Any chances of winning went out the door when the Panthers were forced to start David Carr, who has looked uncomfortable in the pocket all season. Testaverde is expected to start this week as long as he can stay healthy.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- 49ers CBs Nate Clements, who gives up some plays but is a sure tackler and likes to try to strip the ball after a catch, vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith, who has a team-leading 51 catches for 637 yards and six TDs.
--- 49ers rookie LB Patrick Willis, who recorded 18 tackles last week against the Cardinals, vs. Panthers RB DeShaun Foster, who leads the Panthers with 637 yards and six touchdowns.
--- 49ers FS Mark Roman, who has five passes defensed and is often responsible for deep help, vs. Panthers QB Vinny Testaverde, the wily veteran who has thrown at least one TD pass in 21 consecutive seasons.
--- 49ers OLB Parys Haralson, who is showing signs of coming on strong as a pass-rush threat, vs. Panthers RT Jordan Gross, who has allowed just one sack in 11 games this season.
--- 49ers RT Joe Staley, who has been the most consistent of the 49ers linemen this season, vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers, who has a disappointing 2.5 sacks this season.
--- 49ers RB Frank Gore, whose 214 total yards last week was a big key in the team's victory, vs. Panthers LB Jon Beason, who is the leading tackler with 91 stops as a rookie.
--- Gore vs. Panthers DTs Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu. If there's one area the Panthers have done well in this season, it's run defense. They continue to hold their own, but this week they face a stiff test in the multi-talented Gore.

INJURY IMPACT
49ERS:
QB Alex Smith will miss at least another week with shoulder and forearm issues that never improved in the weeks after he sustained a separated shoulder on Sept. 30. Smith visited Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., last week and was told he would be re-evaluated in two weeks. Season-ending shoulder surgery is an option. Smith's forearm requires rest, he said. CB Shawntae Spencer is expected to miss this week's game with a left quadriceps strain that he sustained in last week's game against the Cardinals. CB Marcus Hudson is expected to miss at least two games with a knee sprain he sustained against the Cardinals. Gore is still limited by an ankle sprain, but he is expected to play Sunday. He aggravated the injury early in last week's game against the Cardinals but still managed his best performance of the season. NT Aubrayo Franklin took part in limited practice early in the week and there's a chance he could be available for Sunday's game after missing the past two games. WR Jason Hill sustained a left groin injury two weeks ago and has not played since. His availability is uncertain for Sunday's game. LB Derek Smith has a groin strain but the club expects him to be ready to play Sunday after missing practice time early in the week. LB Jeff Ulbrich is expected to be ready for Sunday's game with an ankle injury. QB Shaun Hill sustained a broken right index finger on his throwing hand two weeks ago, but is well enough to be the backup for this week's game.
PANTHERS: Panthers rookie wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett (knee) missed practice this week, as did defensive end Mike Rucker (illness). Rucker should bounce back to play, but Jarrett's status is unknown.


PERSONNEL NEWS
49ERS

--- QB Trent Dilfer is the 32nd-ranked passer in the league with a 62.8 passer rating. Of qualifying quarterbacks, he ranks only ahead of teammate Alex Smith and the Jets' Kellen Clemens. Dilfer played well last week in the 49ers' overtime victory against the Cardinals, completing 25 of 39 passes for 356 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
--- RB Frank Gore continues to be bothered by a right ankle sprain he sustained Oct. 21 against the Giants. He has learned to cope with the injury, as was apparent last week when he rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns and caught 11 passes for 98 yards against the Cardinals. Gore was honored as NFC offensive player of the week.
--- LB Derek Smith has bounced back from a disappointing season last year to play well. He is third on the team with 83 tackles. His play to re-route Cardinals tight end Leonard Pope led to the sack and fumble in the end zone for the winning points in overtime against the Cardinals. QB Kurt Warner's first option was taken away from him, forcing him to hold the ball longer than expected.
--- CB Marcus Hudson is expected to miss at least two weeks with a knee sprain. Hudson has 23 tackles this season on defense and is fourth on the 49ers with 10 special-teams tackles.
--- NT Aubrayo Franklin has returned to limited practice after missing two games with a torn calf muscle. Coach Mike Nolan said Franklin's availability will be decided just prior to Sunday's game.

PANTHERS
--- RB DeShaun Foster practiced for the second straight day and is still likely to start this week against San Francisco. He should have some opportunities to run.
--- WR Drew Carter, who started last week vs. New Orleans, is likely to start again this week vs. the 49ers.
--- CB Chris Gamble practiced for the second straight day with a cast on his injured thumb. Look for him to play this week.
--- CB Richard Marshall will return to a reserve role this week with Chris Gamble returning to the starting lineup.
--- QB Vinny Testaverde is expected to start this week as long as he is healthy, coach John Fox said. Testaverde seems good so far. It's uncertain who will back him up.


INSIDE THE CAMPS

49ERS

Quarterback Alex Smith, chosen with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, has not thrown a pass in nearly two weeks.

Therefore, he said he has no idea what kind of progress his shoulder and forearm are making. Smith sustained a separated throwing shoulder on Sept. 30. He rushed back to the playing field four weeks later, never giving his shoulder time to properly heal.

Smith also developed forearm tendinitis when he began working hard on his rehabilitation in the weight room. After nearly two weeks of inactivity, Smith said he still does not know if things are improving.

The pain in his shoulder is apparent when he lifts his arm over his shoulder, such as during the throwing motion. The pain in his forearm is there when he grips the ball and throws it, he said. Because he hasn't done any of those things for a while, he can't tell if his condition is improving.

Smith is scheduled to be re-evaluated next week, at which point a course of action will be recommended. Smith wants to avoid surgery -- and the 10 to 12 weeks of rehabilitation that goes along with it.

He traveled to Alabama to visit Dr. James Andrews on Nov. 20. During that meeting, Dr. Andrews recommended Smith take two weeks to rest up before undergoing further evaluation.

That evaluation will take place in the days after the 49ers' game against the Panthers. Veteran Trent Dilfer will make his fifth start of the season in place of Smith. Coach Mike Nolan said he does not know what will happen at the quarterback position the remainder of the season.

"As I said, we'll re-evaluate it," Nolan said. "The medical staff told me what they're doing, and I'm sticking with it. The medical staff said two weeks, and we'll re-evaluate. We'll re-evaluate, then we'll go from there."

PANTHERS

Sensing the Carolina Panthers' season is all but over at 4-7, there's a good faction of fans that would like to see head coach John Fox turn the reigns of this struggling offense over to rookie quarterback Matt Moore. And, the reasoning is fairly solid.

The Panthers seem to have already given up on David Carr, who has been terrible since his arrival here, and why play 44-year old Vinny Testaverde when he'll likely be retired after the season?

Why not give Moore some experience, just to find out what you have heading into next season?

But Fox disagrees.

He thinks playing Moore might do more harm than good. And, considering how much Carolina's offense has struggled since the injury to Jake Delhomme in Week 3, he may be right.

"It's a fine line you walk," Fox said. "There's a certain NFL team sitting there with the No. 1 pick (Oakland Raiders with JaMarcus Russell) in the draft that hasn't had a lot of playing time. Sometimes that might be the worst thing you can do."

Fox doesn't want to ruin Moore's confidence.

"We think he has promise and he's shown some of those abilities. But we've seen some of the other, too," Fox said.

So Testaverde will start against San Francisco as the Panthers attempt to win at home for the first time since Nov. 16, 2006.

Testaverde, who missed last week's start with a back injury, has practiced twice this week.

Testaverde said in an ideal world a quarterback would get about three years to get ready to start -- about the same amount of time Tony Romo had in Dallas.

"The thing is, there are a lot of guys who have ability, but not all of them make it. You have to have some intangibles," he said. "You have to have something special about you. The thing about Tony (Romo) was that he was eager to learn. He looked like a guy who was hungry for it and wanted to be successful. He was always watching film and studying and asking questions. His abilities allow him to play the position."



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