CHARLOTTE – It's impossible to look forward to Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoff between the Panthers and San Francisco 49ers without looking back to the teams' Week 10 meeting.
The teams aren't decidedly different than they were when Carolina came away with a 10-9 triumph in San Francisco, but they do seem to be decidedly better.
"I know we went out there and beat them six or seven weeks ago. I'm sure they're a better football team now, and I'd like to believe we're a better football team as well," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.
The 49ers followed their loss to the Panthers with a narrow loss at New Orleans but have since reeled off seven consecutive wins, including a 23-20 victory at Green Bay in the wild card round.
"They're coming off a huge win, and they're better now than they were," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "They were pretty dang good before."
The Panthers' victory at San Francisco was their fifth straight in what eventually grew to a nine-game winning streak. The Panthers are 6-1 since the San Francisco game, their lone loss also coming to New Orleans.
"We've got our work cut out for us, a big game against a good football team coming in here off a big win in a hostile environment," McDermott said. "We've got to prepare and give ourselves a chance to win."
That's what the Panthers have been doing since the regular season concluded. Here's a look at playoff preparations from the perspective of the coordinators.
SHULA: While the 49ers were busy getting ready for the Packers, the Panthers had an extra week of preparation but didn't know their opponent. So as much as anything, the offense concentrated on itself.
"Getting some rest was good, and it also gave us time to look back on ourselves regardless of the team we'd be playing and how we could do certain things better," Shula said. "We also looked at how defenses in general have been playing us, both with their defensive front and their secondary.
"And obviously now that we're clued in on San Francisco, we're focusing on our (Week 10) game and the other games that they've played."
Because the Panthers had already played San Francisco but hadn't previously game-planned for potential opponents Green Bay and Philadelphia, Shula and his staff spent the early part of last week looking at the Packers and Eagles before shifting focus to the 49ers.
Shula said it helps with preparations that the Panthers have already played San Francisco, but that only goes so far.
"You get a feel for their personnel and matchups," he said. "But obviously you have to try to make adjustments to play better, and you know they're going to make adjustments as well. That's the intriguing thing about playing teams more than once in a season."
MCDERMOTT: The defense took full advantage of its extra time as well, though the actual advantage is a limited one.
"We'd like to think that with the bye we're a little bit ahead. At the same time, our familiarity with them is the same as their familiarity with us," McDermott said. "They came off their win, flew back home, and I'm sure they had it all set out in front of them ready to go. When the ball is kicked off, all of that really goes to the side, and you've got to play football."
And you've got to play a specific brand of football - one the defense played at a high level in the teams' first two meeting and one that the unit continued to hone during the bye week.
"It always comes down to blocking, tackling, catching the football and running after the catch. That's what we're preaching to our players," McDermott said. "We've got to continue to get better as a football team – fundamentals, technique and making sure we're sound in what we're doing."
McDermott said the defense displayed a good mix of aggression and discipline in the first 49ers game, and every bit of it was needed in the low-scoring showdown. Common sense suggests the rematch should be similar, but both coordinators are preparing for every possibility.
"You never know in the playoffs," McDermott said. "You saw the scores this past weekend with some really high-scoring games. There were some halves where people were shut down and came out in the second half and exploded.
"We've got to play four quarters of good fundamental football."