— -- CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Despite a 10-9 victory at Candlestick Park in November and a seven-game winning streak at home, the Carolina Panthers are early underdogs for Sunday's playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.
And that's all right with Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
"Being the underdog I guess takes pressure off [us] and puts pressure on them,'' Rivera said Monday. "Now they have expectations for them. But we're at home. We're going to come out, show up and do the best we can.
"It's a big week. We know it is. We're going to show up on Sunday and we're going to play. It'll be a lot of fun.''
The game opened as a pick 'em, but early action on San Francisco made the 49ers a one-point favorite.
San Francisco was a six-point favorite on Nov. 10 when the Panthers beat the 49ers for their fifth straight win of what would be an eight-game winning streak.
But because the 49ers went on the road and beat Green Bay 23-20 on Sunday, and because they have more playoff experience as the reigning NFC champions, Carolina has been cast as an underdog beyond the point spread.
That the 49ers have wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who caught eight passes for 125 yards against Green Bay, for this Carolina game after they didn't the first time also is a factor.
"After you look at what happened last night, you look at Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers, everything going on there, you understand it,'' said Panthers receiver Steve Smith, expected to return from a knee injury. "You don't really take it as a shot at us. You just look at it as that's just how things go.
"But at the end of the day, the game is played on the field, not in the media room, not on video games. It's played with real men between the white lines.''
Rivera said the Panthers will approach the 49ers like every other opponent during a stretch of 11 wins in the past 12 games, each with playoff implications.
"We've played a lot of big games this year,'' he said. "We've won a lot of big games in the fourth quarter as well. To me, it's about the game. You play the game.
"We played Sunday night, we played Monday night, we played against the 49ers, we played against New England, we had to come back in a win against Miami, we had to play the Saints at home for the division lead, we had to beat Atlanta to win the division. So we've played a lot of big games, too.''
The Panthers sacked San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times, held him to 16 yards rushing and 91 yards passing in the first game.
Rivera doesn't expect Kaepernick, who rushed for 98 yards and passed for 227 yards against Green Bay, to struggle that much against the league's No. 2-ranked defense this time.
"We were fortunate,'' Rivera said. "We were able to do some things and make it tough on him. I don't expect that this time. All you have to do is watch him down the stretch. We caught them at the right time, and it turned out to our benefit.''
Asked what he meant by the right time, Rivera said, "When we beat them, [Kaepernick] didn't play well. That's basically it. I don't expect that again. I expect the young man to come out and play well. He's a good football player. He showed it last night.''
Rivera may be worried about Kaepernick, but he isn't worried about Carolina's lack of playoff experience being a factor.
"It only matters, in all honesty, when people bring it up and want to talk about it and want to make more about it than it is,'' he said. "This is an important game. We know it's a very important football game.
"But it's no more important than the ones we've had to play all year. We've had to play games and we've had to win them.''