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Grant Cohn: It's Panthers by a whisker

  • Jim Harbaugh and Panthers coach Ron Rivera meets at the end of Carolina's victory in San Francisco on Nov. 10. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Before I write off the 49ers, I want to say I underestimated them this season.

When Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles' tendon during OTAs, I thought the 49ers' season was dead. And when Aldon Smith drove his truck into a tree and the 49ers started the season 1-2, I thought the season was really most sincerely dead.

But I was wrong.

The 49ers played like maniacs after Week 3, and their record is 12-2 since then. Give credit to Jim Harbaugh for turning the season around, for not letting his team go in the tank. No head coach currently in the NFL gets his players to play harder than Harbaugh does. For all of Harbaugh's good qualities, that may be his best. And so far, this season may have been Harbaugh's best as a 49er. He had to overcome more injuries and bad luck this season than the previous two.

So I when I say the 49ers will lose on Sunday, it's not because they aren't good. They're as good as any team in the NFL. They could beat the Panthers this Sunday and I could be wrong again.

But as good as the 49ers are, the Panthers may be better. Both teams have good running games. The 49ers have better receivers, but the Panthers have a slightly better defense and a slightly better quarterback.

The Panthers started the season 1-3 and since then, their record is 11-1. The only game they lost was to the Saints in the Superdome, where the Saints were undefeated this season. So, the Panthers may be even hotter than the 49ers right now.

When these two teams played each other Week 10, the Panthers won by just one point and Michael Crabtree didn't play. But the Panthers beat up the 49ers, knocked out Vernon Davis and Eric Reid. Both the 49ers and Panthers want to beat up their opponent, and the Panthers did the beating in the first matchup.

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