When the 49ers lost to the Carolina Panthers in early November, it was an ugly performance by San Francisco’s offense.
In a 10-9 loss, Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sacked six times, ran for just 16 yards, completed just 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards and the Panthers defense smothered his wide receivers. Mario Manningham and Anquan Boldin combined for six catches, but their total yardage was just 53 – only 8.8 yards per catch.
But when the 49ers travel to Carolina Sunday for a rematch with the Panthers in the NFC divisional round, Carolina’s terrific defense will be challenged by a much more complete and dynamic offense than it saw at Candlestick Park two months ago.
The return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree – as demonstrated in Sunday’s 23-30 wild-card playoff victory over the Packers at Green Bay – has transformed the 49ers.
In the victory over the Packers, Crabtree had eight catches for 125 yards and was targeted 13 times by Kaepernick. With temperatures barely above zero, Crabtree was catching Kaepernick’s darts, even in tight coverage. On the final drive for the winning field goal, he started the march with an 11-yard grab, then gained 17 yards on a third-and-10 catch.
“He made big plays when we needed him, third-down plays, especially on that last drive,” Kaepernick told reporters. “Having him back on the field changes defenses.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, who’s always raved about Crabtree’s sure hands, was ready to nominate him for the Pro Football Hall of Fame after the victory.
“People talk about cold weather and it’d be tough to catch balls,” Harbaugh said. “But the greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything. It’s unbelievable. In the northern snowlands, down to the tropics’ sunny scenes, he’s catching the football. Where they throw a football, he’ll be catching it.”
Added Harbaugh, according to Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group: “If my life depended on it and somebody had to catch a ball, I’d enlist Crabtree to do it.”
Kaepernick, too, has dialed up his passing efficiency and decision-making since that first game against the Panthers. Since Week 11 of the regular season, Kaepernick has 11 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
Having Crabtree has opened up the passing offense and forced defenses to pick their poison. If they double up on Crabtree, Anquan Boldin or tight end Vernon Davis, there’s likely to be an open receiver somewhere else.
Plus, Crabtree has blossomed as a playoff playmaker. Over his last four postseason games, notes Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Crabtree has 28 catches for 410 yards and three TDs – an average of seven catches and 102.5 yards per game.
The fifth-seeded 49ers are now looking forward to their rematch with the No. 2 seeded Panthers. As Kaepernick said, “We owe them one.”
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 1- to 2-point favorites for Sunday’s game, set to kick off at 10:05 a.m. in the Bay Area.