GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, JC Pearson; DirecTV, 715
SERIES: 15th meeting. Series tied 7-7. The former NFC West divisional rivals hook up for a rare intraconference game. The two teams, who share the NFC's worst record at 1-7, haven't met since the league realigned divisions following the 2001 season. The last game marked George Seifert's final game in his home city as the Panthers lost 25-22 in overtime to the 49ers in San Francisco. 2004 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (25th rush, 16th pass); defense 13th (29th rush, 8th pass). 49ers: offense 18th (30th rush, 11th pass); defense 15th (25th rush, 13th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers' offense is dictated by the availability of RB Stephen Davis. If the swelling in his knee subsides and he can play, Carolina will rely on the ground game. If not, the onus falls on QB Jake Delhomme, who will be facing a depleted 49ers secondary. Opposing quarterbacks have a 102.4 passer rating against San Francisco, making it critical the offense gets production from RB Kevan Barlow to control the clock. The success or failure of the 49ers' ground game determines how effective QB Tim Rattay can be with the play-action pass. However, Rattay has been efficient when healthy and should be working against plenty of man coverage downfield.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Have placed 10 players on Injured Reserve. ... Three of WR Muhsin Muhammad's 21 career 100-yard passing games have come against San Francisco. 49ers: Have converted 6 of 8 (75.0) percent of their fourth-down attempts. ... DT Bryant Young needs 1.5 sacks to become the first player in franchise history with 70 for his career.
--RB Stephen Davis was placed on the IR Saturday, making the 3rd Carolina Panthers running back who will miss the rest of the season.
--RB Joey Harris could see a more significant role in the offense if Stephen Davis is unable to play.
--FB Brad Hoover missed practice again on Thursday, but it's still expected he will start on Sunday against the 49ers. Hoover has been bothered by back problems.
--LB Dan Morgan practiced again Thursday and is likely to play this week against the 49ers. Morgan suffered a concussion two weeks ago in a loss to Seattle.
--CB Chris Gamble has a sprained knee, but remains probable for this week's game. His speed may not be 100 percent.
--CB Artrell Hawkins continues to receive treatment for a pulled hamstring and will be a game-time decision. If Hawkins doesn't play then Dante Wesley is expected to take over the as the team's nickel back.
--QB Tim Rattay looked sharp in practice Thursday and is not even listed on the team's injury report heading into Sunday's game against the Panthers. Rattay said he has a better understanding of his forearm condition and knows how much he can throw during practice without aggravating the strain that has plagued him since training camp.
--C Jeremy Newberry underwent an epidural on his back Thursday, one day after feeling back pain during stretching on Wednesday. Coach Dennis Erickson said there is still a possibility that Newberry could be available for the Nov. 21 against the Buccaneers.
--CB Ahmed Plummer is out at least another 2 or 3 weeks with a bulging disc in his back, but some people inside the 49ers organization said they would not be surprised if Plummer does not play again this season.
--DE John Engelberger is putting together a decent season, as he approaches his career-high in sack totals. Engelberger, whose career-high is 4.5 sacks, has three sacks. He also leads the team with seven quarterback pressures.
--LB Derek Smith, who missed two games earlier this season with torn ankle ligaments, is just three tackles behind Jeff Ulbrich for the team lead. Smith has 71 tackles in six games.
--CB Shawntae Spencer sustained a sprained left ankle late in Wednesday's practice and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Panthers. Spencer did not practice Thursday, but coach Dennis Erickson said he believes Spencer will be ready to start.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Panthers:
In a little less than a month, defensive tackle Jordan Carstens has gone from the Panthers' practice squad to a starting role on defense.
At 6-feet-5 and 215 pounds, Carstens wasn't even recruited by any Division I football teams coming out of high school, so he decided to attend his uncle's alma mater, Iowa State, and tried to make it as a walk-on. By the time his career at Iowa State was over, Carstens had become a two-time team captain, earning All-Big 12 academic honors as a junior and a senior. Over his final two seasons, Carstens led the conference with 45 quarterback hurries and has seven sacks and 176 tackles.
Still, that wasn't enough to convince any pro teams to select him in the NFL draft.
So essentially Carstens had to start over again as a walk-on, this time with the Carolina Panthers.
Despite joining one of the league's top defensive line units this past summer, Carstens turned some heads in training camp and earned a spot on the practice squad.
Carstens was called up to the 53-man roster four weeks ago when All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was placed on injured reserve. And when the position further became decimated by injuries to Kindal Moorehead and Omari Jordan, Carstens was suddenly promoted to first team.
Although the Panthers lost 27-24 to the Oakland Raiders and allowed three rushing touchdowns, coach John Fox seemed pleased with Carstens' effort.
"Jordan has just continued to improve," Fox said. "He's a guy that, coming out of camp, we thought enough of to keep around on our practice squad. We've had some injury situations, and he's stepped in.
"So far, he's grabbed the bull by the horns as far as the opportunity. He continues to improve."
Now 6-feet-5 and 300 pounds, Carstens is the first to admit he's the fastest of more physical rookie defensive linemen in the league. But that only serves as added incentive for him to succeed.
"I think I had a little chip on my shoulder coming in here as an undrafted rookie," Carstens said. "You know you have to work that much harder to get noticed."
The 49ers had a not-particularly-deep team when the season started, so they weren't exactly equipped to handle the number of injuries they've endured through the first half of the regular season.
The 49ers have averaged 5 1/2 starters out of the lineup each week this season due to injuries. On Sunday when they face the Carolina Panthers, the 49ers could be without their top four cornerbacks.
The team is already without Mike Rumph, who is out for the season with a broken right forearm, and Ahmed Plummer, who will miss his third game in a row with a bulging disc in his neck.
Now, Shawntae Spencer and Jimmy Williams, who have started the last two games, are both listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Spencer sustained a left ankle sprain late in Wednesday's practice, and Williams is hobbled with a broken toe on his right foot.
Both players skipped practice on Thursday, but coach Dennis Erickson said he believes both will be available for Sunday's game. However, Erickson routinely has an overly optimistic view on whether his players will be availability.
If Spencer and Williams are unable to play, the 49ers' starting cornerbacks against the Panthers would be first-year player Joselio Hanson and backup safety Dwaine Carpenter.
The 49ers have to find a way to remain motivated for the second half of the season even though Erickson admits the playoffs are no longer a possibility.
"Both Carolina and we have half a season left, it's not like the games are over," Erickson said. "Let's face it, we are out of the playoffs and now it is a matter of trying to see where we are in terms of the future. It all comes down to being competitive and playing a game. When you play a game you compete to win."