Only two games separate the 49ers or Panthers from a Super Bowl berth. Coaches Jim Harbaugh and Ron Rivera, two former teammates while playing for the Bears in 1987-92, will have the opportunity to advance to the NFC title game with a win over the other Sunday.
Both coaches are in their third year; Rivera turned the Panthers around by winning 11 of their last 12 games with a division title and first-round bye while Harbaugh has won a playoff game every year since joining the 49ers in 2011, including an appearance in last year's Super Bowl.
"I have a lot of respect for what Jim's done and the way he's done it," Rivera told USA Today. "A lot starts with who we played for in coach [Mike] Ditka. You wanted to be in the foxhole with Jim Harbaugh. He hates to lose."
Rivera had the edge earlier this season when his Panthers beat the 49ers in the regular season 10-9. The defensive battle emulated his '85 Bears' tough, intimidating defense.
River played his entire nine-year professional career with the Bears after being picked in the second round in '84. He was a backup linebacker for the notorious '85 Super Bowl defense. He became a starter in '88 and accumulated 7.5 sacks with nine interceptions over 137 games.
Harbaugh joined the Bears in '87 as a first-round quarterback pick. He was a starter for six seasons and ranks second in franchise history for passing completions (1,023), passing attempts (1,759) and third in yards (11,567).
Harbaugh and Ditka were known to go at each other in post-game interviews, the most notable year being the '92 season when Ditka lost the locker room.
Also worth noting on the Panthers' team is wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, a former wide receiver for the Bears, offensive coordinator Mike Shula, a once tight ends coach for the Bears and tight end Greg Olsen, who played four seasons in Chicago.
As an Auburn fan, I'm also showing love for Ronnie Brown (Chargers), King Dunlap (Chargers), Ben Grubbs (Saints), Will Herring (Saints), Cam Newton (Panthers) and Carlos Rogers (49ers) as the remaining Auburn players still alive in the championship race (I also run War Eagle Insider).