Over the next few weeks, we'll analyze the NFL playoffs using EA Sports' powerhouse football simulation, Madden NFL 25, determining the pros and cons of each team and picking an overall winner.
For our latest match-up, it's a tale of two quarterbacks. On the one side, you have the thriving Colin Kaepernick and a strong San Francisco offense. On the other, there's the epic turnaround story of Cam Newton and his talented Carolina Panthers squad. Only one will emerge champion. The question is…who?
San Francisco 49ers – Madden NFL 25 Team Rating: 91
The 49ers have been through a lot this season. They had to bid adieu to Candlestick Pack after years of memories; they had to adjust to the departure of Alex Smith and the arrival of fresh young quarterback Colin Kaepernick; and last week, they braved the freezing tundra of Lambeau Field and managed to overcome the Green Bay Packers – in their own house.
Still, they did it all with style and bravado. Proving that he's hardly just a flash in the pan, Kaepernick managed to get some big stats on the board over the course of the season, proving an able quarterback with a minimal amount of interceptions. He didn't act alone, however. The team as a whole was on their game all season, especially the offense. Anquan Boldin, a new addition to the squad, has proven his worth with huge yards and an overall champion-like performance, along with Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, who are very able receivers in the face of Kaepernick's aerial assault. Frank Gore also managed to gain some yards – and touchdowns – in his own right.
Defense did its job as well, led by the likes of Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Donte Hilner and Justin Smith, grabbing interceptions and sacks like they were fresh on a menu. They'll have their hands full with the Panthers, but they're more than ready.
Playing as the Niners
The Niners are one of the highest-ranked teams in Madden NFL 25, which gives them quite the advantage. Kaepernick is outright deadly on the field when it comes to his passes, short and long alike. The important thing with him is to keep him well defended while he opens up his routes. Find plays where you have a good line-up to keep him untouched, while getting a couple of receivers open down the field to gain extra yardage. Make sure you watch them all the way down, though, as you'll want to make sure you're not setting up for an interception. Rely on Kaepernick's speed and strength, and you'll go places.
As for running plays, don't forget to throw a few in. While Gore isn't as strong as other running backs in the league, he can still get the yards when necessary, and he's good for gaining a few extra yards for a field goal opportunity or, better yet, a touchdown.
When it comes to defense, it's important to keep an eye on Cam. This team has been unpredictable all season, with him leading the charge, and it's vital to find a weakness and exploit it early. Look for gaps in the Panthers' offensive line and take advantage, and watch the routes when he goes for a passing play. He's excellent, but not quite perfect. The vital thing here is to strike when he's off.
Carolina Panthers – Madden NFL 25 Team Rating: 76
Considering its blunder-filled season last year, no one expected the turnaround of the Carolina Panthers for the 2013-2014 run – not even EA Sports. However, Cam Newton and his squad surprised, well, everyone by becoming a true competitor in the post-season, even earning home field advantage as a result.
The main weapon here is Newton, whose quarterback performance has been nothing short of heroic when it comes to getting touchdowns and rushing for yards. He's not the only one either, as he received plenty of backing from the revitalized Steve Smith and the brilliant ground game by Deangelo Williams.
Defense is also strong, with Luke Keuchly and an energized defensive line ready to give San Francisco a true run for its money this weekend. It's just a question of how much the home field advantage does for them, especially against a powerful 49ers offense.
Playing As the Panthers
On offense, you can do no wrong with Newton. The fact is, he's got a great playbook to choose from where, whether you're going for the short yardage or want to haul in a long bomb for the end zone. It's best to stick to small to medium-range passes at first, just to see what the 49ers defense is capable of. Watch for defenders that will break through the offensive line, and be prepared to find a receiver in a hurry if this is the case. Also, with Newton, don't be afraid to make a dash for a few yards. He rushes better than most quarterbacks in the league.
Williams is also quite able to get a few yards down the field, as well as Smith, so be sure to turn to them whenever you get a chance. They each have a great pair of hands to haul in the ball and get it down the field, which you'll need to do once the 49ers offense tries to keep in the game. Use every weapon you've got, because you'll need them.
As for defense, winning with the Panthers will be quite tricky. With Kaepernick, Crabtree and others on their A-game – and proving they can win on the road, as they did last week in Green Bay – it's important to see what they do. Kaepernick will get the ball in the air as much as he can, so watch the receivers and try to get in the way of the ball. It never hurts to go for a sack as well, but the Niners offense could make it tough to break through the line. Keep chugging away on different defensive plays, and find that groove that will allow you to penetrate – and maybe even come up with the ball.
So Who Wins?
This is another tough contest, and there's no question Newton and his team will bring everything they've got. However, Kaepernick and his squad have proven to be just a little bit tougher, especially playing in what seemed like zero-degree temperature just a few days ago.
In our sim, the 49ers dominated the Panthers 38-7, which is of little surprise considering their rankings. The real contest should be a much closer one, especially considering how good the Panthers are. At the end of the day, though, look for Kaepernick and his squad to push on to the championship round.
Madden NFL 25 is available now for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3.