CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Today's NFC division playoff game is a rematch from Nov. 10, when Carolina won 10-9 at San Francisco.
Asked what his team learned from the win, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said: "We are contenders. Not just that we are good and we can win, but we are contenders."
Apparently, not everyone is ready to put them in that class.
Colin Kaepernick was sacked six times and intercepted on San Francisco's final possession that day. He finished 11-of-22 for 91 yards and had only 16 rushing yards. "I think it was more what we did to ourselves," he said Wednesday. "We didn't execute the way we should have, and I didn't play well."
His comment was not the only knock last week against Carolina, an underdog today despite going 12-4, winning the NFC South, having the NFL's No. 2 overall defense and playing at home.
"It really hasn't changed too much," Carolina safety Mike Mitchell said. "We still don't get very much respect."
This is not the first time the Panthers have been questioned this season. Jets receiver Santonio Holmes called the secondary the "weakest link" of their defense. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn responded with two sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown that sealed a 30-20 victory.
It was one of the standout performances in a season full of them. Hardy had seven sacks over the final two games, including three in a 17-13 victory over the Saints on Dec. 22 that gave Carolina the division lead with a game to go. Hardy raised his sack total to 15 with four against Matt Ryan in a 21-20 win at Atlanta that clinched the division.
Then there was linebacker Luke Kuechly, perhaps the defensive player of the year, who recorded 24 tackles against the Saints. "He is the perfect machine," Mitchell said. "When God made him, he was making a middle linebacker. He's just perfect for the position."
Coach Ron Rivera is already comparing Kuechly to Hall of Famer Mike Singletary, his former Bears teammate.
Kuechly is not buying it.
"I'm in my second year," he said. "I've got a long way to go to be Mike Singletary."
Much has been made of 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed the Panthers game while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. He had eight catches for 125 yards in last week's 23-20 victory at Green Bay.
This time, it was Carolina's turn to play down an opponent.
"Same offense, different person on it," Hardy said. "Same quarterback, same O-line, same running back, same cornerbacks, same quarterback, same defense, same coordinators, same coach."
Yes, as a matter of fact, that is the same quarterback who said he had a bad day against the Panthers in the last game.
"Anybody that goes against me is going to have a bad day," Hardy said. "I'm a really, really, really ugly person, and I have a bad attitude."