CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said he’s always been shorter, fatter and slower than the next guy.
He plays with a chip on his shoulder and runs as hard as he does because he’s had that underdog mentality since he’s played football, he said.
So when the Panthers — with a first-round bye, playing in front of their home crowd against a San Francisco team they beat earlier in the season — are listed as the underdog in the playoff game Sunday, Tolbert felt disrespected.
“I can’t speak for everybody else, but personally, yes, I do,” Tolbert said. “To me, it’s absolutely ridiculous why we’re the underdogs at home when we’re 7-1 at home, when we beat teams that are in the same caliber as San Francisco, if not better. Personally I got a bad taste in my mouth about it.”
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The Panthers opened as a consensus one-point favorite in sports betting books. Now, San Francisco is a one-point favorite.
The Panthers (12-4) are playing the no-respect card against San Francisco (13-4), despite defeating the 49ers 10-9 at Candlestick Park on Nov. 10.
Several other Panthers, including defensive end Greg Hardy, said they didn’t care what Las Vegas or talking heads had to say about the game Sunday.
“If you don’t stop me, I’m going to break your quarterback’s face,” Hardy said. “If he doesn’t throw it to your receivers, he’s not going to win. It depends upon who’s in the position and who wants to make the plays. It doesn’t matter what team is hot, what team is up or down, what team’s feeling sorry for themselves, what team’s the favorite. Hell, I ain’t been a favorite in 24 years. I’m doing great.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera suggested one of the reasons San Francisco is favored is because of the 49ers’ playoff experience.
Rivera said he doesn’t mind going in with an underdog mentality.
“We do because we are, and that’s fine,” the coach said. “I think the thing that we all have to understand is it’s going to come down to the actual playing of the game.”
Missing from the first 49ers-Panthers game was wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was recovering from an Achilles injury. Crabtree caught eight passes for 125 yards in the 49ers’ victory against Green Bay last week.
Also, tight end Vernon Davis didn’t play in the second half after he suffered a concussion at the end of the second quarter. Those two additions have some pundits siding with the 49ers this time around.
Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach who was teammates with Rivera with the Chicago Bears, downplayed the experience factor.
“I’ve always really felt that where you’re going is a heck of a lot more important than where you’ve come from,” Harbaugh said.
Rivera said the Panthers got some playoff-type experience by winning a number of big games during the season — they beat New England and New Orleans along with San Francisco — to battle back from a 1-3 start to win the NFC South and secure their first-round bye.
The Panthers sacked Colin Kaepernick six times and limited him to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing in the first meeting in a victory Hardy said “proved we were a contender.”
But Rivera said Kaepernick’s play has vastly improved since then.
“He is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Rivera said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and catch him on a bad day.”
Kaepernick said he’s eager to bounce back from perhaps the most disappointing game of his career against Carolina.
When asked what the Panthers did that was so effective, he said, “I think it was more of what we did to ourselves. I didn’t play well.”
The Associated Press
contributed to this report.