49ers looking for payback against Panthers

Niners coach Jim Harbaugh admitted this week that, yes, sometimes he worries before big games such as today’s playoff matchup against the Carolina Panthers.

Not that the third-year coach would ever admit it in the context of being a weakness. He was quick to say that worrying is actually a strength.

“I think it starts with what’s the worst possible thing that could happen,” he said. “When going into a situation, what’s the worst possible things that could happen, let’s make sure that doesn’t happen. And then, ticks down a subset of questions that are in the hundreds and thousands.”

In Harbaugh’s mind, the worst thing usually involves losing the game. That’s exactly what happened when the Panthers came into Candlestick Park two months ago and scored a 10-9 win that didn’t feel as close as the score would indicate.

The Panthers’ defense — second in the regular season in both yards and points allowed per game — pushed the 49ers around in that game, sacking Colin Kaepernick six times and held him to just 91 passing yards.

The 49ers were without receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis left the game early with a concussion, two of Kaepernick’s favorite targets, but that didn’t stop the players from taking ownership of what happened in that game.

“They’ve got a good defense,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “It was tough. But we watched the film, we made a lot of mistakes we know that we can do better. It’s playoff time and we’re going to clean up the mistakes and try and move forward and try and get this win.”

Gore said they identified situations where eliminating a mistake or two would have led to a big play.

When asked if the defense did things to disrupt his play or whether it was mistakes he made, Kaepernick simply said, “It was me.”

Beating that Carolina front seven — a group Harbaugh said was the toughest his team has faced — will start with working against linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was third in the league in tackles this season.

Harbaugh said Kuechly is not a player you totally neutralize, but that slowing him down is a priority.

Kaepernick should have more protection this time around, with Davis fully healthy and ready to contribute on the line. The Pro Bowl tight end leaving the last game early is something that Harbaugh said fits into the “worst-case scenario” situation he mentioned earlier.

Despite the daunting challenge and endless “worrying” on Harbaugh’s part, the coach still insisted “this is as much fun as you can possibly have in football and as much fun as you can have in life.”

Gore insisted the team is going into this game with a bit of vengeance on its collective mind.

“We all need to make a statement,” he said. “They came in our house, they came and took it from us. Now, a playoff game, we want to go to the next level, they do too, we both field a good team. We’re going to be ready for it. We’re ready for a test.”

Should the 49ers win and advance, that wounded pride would remain useful in the next round, with both possible opponents, the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, having beaten the 49ers this season.

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