The Carolina Panthers took the 49ers' lunch on their home field back in November.
San Francisco, missing many key pieces, was still looking for its offensive identity as Colin Kaepernick took his lumps in the midst of his first full season as starter. The team looked in a lull following it's bye week after their trip to London in Week 9.
A number of things have changed. The venue, the stakes and the 49ers' cast.
Most notably, Michael Crabtree's return as transformed the offense into a more balanced attack, highlighted by his eight-catch, 125-yard performance in frigid Green Bay to kick start the playoffs for the defending conference champs.
In Week 10's beating (a complete flashback is available here), the Panthers held Kaepernick to just 46 net yards passing. He threw for 91 yards, but was sacked a season-high six times by the Panthers, who finished the season leading the NFL getting to the quarterback.
The Panthers used an array of stunts and blitzes to confuse the 49ers' protection and the home team couldn't recover. Without Crabtree and Vernon Davis - who left the game in the first half with a concussion - Kaepernick was unable to extend plays and bail himself out with either his legs or his arm. Anquan Boldin finished the day with three receptions for 23 yards, while Mario Manningham led the team with three catches and 30 yards.
Manningham has since gone on injured reserve after suffering a set back to his surgically repaired knee he hurt 13 months ago in Seattle. But his absence has allowed rookie Quinton Patton to slide into the No. 3 receiver slot. Patton has three catches on the season, including a crucial grab against the Cardinals to set up Phil Dawson's game-winning field goal in Week 17 to secure the No. 5 seed.
Davis tied a career-high in the regular season with 13 touchdown receptions, good for the second-most among tight ends. In games Davis played in full, the 49ers are 13-1, including the win over the Packers. They are 0-3 when he doesn't play or leaves early as he did in Week 10 against Carolina. He's the team's best most potent down field threat, averaging a team-high 16.3 yards per catch.
Kaepernick's Favorite Targets
Anquan Boldin: 85 receptions (69 percent completion rate), 1,179 yards, 7 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 118.6 QB rating.
Michael Crabtree: 19 receptions (63 percent completion rate), 284 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 91.5 QB rating.
Vernon Davis: 52 receptions (63 percent completion rate), 850 yards, 13 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 127.5 QB rating.
Before Crabtree's return, Kaepernick had an 86.6 passer rating. In the seven games since, that number's jumped to 96.79 including last week. A big part has been his ability to avoid interceptions. In those 11 games, he threw 14 touchdowns to seven interceptions. That improved to eight touchdowns to two picks since.
It bodes well for the San Francisco that Kaepernick is playing his best ball as the season goes on. And now that the sample is growing, it's becoming clear his legs have become a much larger threat in the playoffs, indicating the team does try to limit his running during the regular season, despite what coaches says to the media.
Kaepernick has averaged just under 33 yards on the ground per game in his first two regular seasons as starter. In the playoffs, he's averaging 90.5.
That number remains skewed by his first playoff game against the Packers last season when he gashed them for a record 181 yards and two touchdowns. But it's worth pointing out because Kaepernick hardly used his legs in the first match up with the Panthers when he ran just four times for 16 yards. His ability to make plays with his feet could become an equalizer against such a talented defense.
On the Panthers' side, the 49ers face a similar problem in trying to stop Cam Newton, who does his best work when he's blitzed, which is something the 49ers don't do often. Newton's passing metrics have increased slightly in each of his three seasons, making this one his best one since Carolina made him the No. 1-overall pick in 2011. His overall yardage totals are down, thanks to his improved running game led by DeAngelo Williams, but he's been more effective within the offense.
Williams had 201 carries for 843 yards this season with just three touchdowns. The Panthers like to use Mike Tolbert and Newton in red-zone situations, where they rank in the middle of the pack in terms of scoring touchdowns. But on third and fourth down, Carolina is third in the NFL, thanks to Newton's improved passing and the continued threat of his legs.
Newton's Favorite Targets
Greg Olson: 73 receptions (72 percent completion rate), 816 yards, 6 touchdowns.
Steve Smith: 64 receptions (62 percent completion rate), 745 yards, 4 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 80.8 QB rating.
Brandon LaFell: 49 receptions (59 percent completion rate), 627 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 82.8 QB Rating.
The 49ers will be without Carlos Rogers while Steve Smith remains hobbled after spraining his PCL in Week 16. Smith will play, but it's unknown how much his injury will hinder him.
For the San Francisco's secondary, the loss of Rogers is not a back breaker, if last week's performance from Perrish Cox in Green Bay is any indication. Cox played every snap but one as the team's nickel back, beating out Eric Wright during the week, and only allowed one reception when targeted.
Sunday will be a big game for Glenn Dorsey, who has played well since assuming the starting nose tackle job after Ian Williams broke his ankle Week 2 in Seattle. Dorsey's been stout against the run and has done a good job occupying blockers to let Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman run free. His role will be critical, as the Panthers run in more than 48 percent of the time, the fourth-most in the league.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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