There's a far different dynamic for Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers' offense this time around against Carolina.
His name is Michael Crabtree.
Kaepernick had his least-productive game as a pro in a 10-9 loss to the Panthers on Nov. 10 at Candlestick Park, and the Niners had also lost tight end Vernon Davis to a first-half concussion that day.
Now, with two of Kaepernick's top targets at full strength to complement Anquan Boldin, San Francisco (13-4) is riding a seven-game winning streak and ready for a different outcome in the NFC divisional playoffs Sunday at Charlotte.
"I didn't perform well enough," Kaepernick said Wednesday. "A variety of things, it really depends on the play, but we have to play better this week. It was me. It was something that the first game we didn't play very well, we didn't execute the way we should have."
It didn't help Kaepernick's cause getting sacked six times. He went 11 for 22 for 91 yards and an interception with a dismal 42.0 passer rating, his second-lowest of the season after a 20.1 rating in a 29-3 Week 2 loss at Seattle.
Add Crabtree and Davis to the mix and the Panthers have a lot more to deal with on defense other than focusing to slow down Frank Gore, who ran for 82 yards in the first meeting.
Crabtree caught eight passes for 125 yards Sunday in a 23-20 wild-card win at Green Bay. He returned for the final five games of the regular season following May surgery on a torn right Achilles tendon, making 19 receptions for 284 yards and a touchdown. His season debut came Dec. 1 against St. Louis.
"Offensively, they've got Michael Crabtree back 100 percent," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. "What it does is it gives them another weapon with a guy that has the ability to get open and make plays happen."
Coach Jim Harbaugh has taken his praise of Crabtree much further, saying he has never seen a player who can catch the ball as well as San Francisco's fifth-year wideout who produced a career season a year ago pre-injury.
"I just have never personally seen anybody catch the ball better than Michael Crabtree does," Harbaugh said about San Francisco's 10th overall pick in 2009. "He's a highly competitive individual. It's important for him to be good. It's important for him to make plays. He's got a lot of pride about his own personal performance and the team's performance. And, he's one of those guys that can really get his engine revved up for games and big games."
When asked Wednesday if he agrees with his coach on this one, Kaepernick said, "There are not too many people who can catch the football like him."
Crabtree insists he is still making strides each week, though he has looked nothing short of his old dominant self from the moment he stepped back on the field.
"We're just on a different level right now, especially with Crabtree and Anquan Boldin," Davis said. "Crabtree, he's been doing a tremendous job for us. He's helped us out so much."
While Carolina's stout defense has successfully contained mobile quarterbacks this year — such as Seattle's Russell Wilson in a 12-7 season-opening loss for the Panthers — Kaepernick is on quite a roll with his speedy, long legs.
He ran seven times for 98 yards and also passed for 227 yards against the Packers.
Kaepernick has ample motivation this week, aside from getting his team one step closer to a Super Bowl return after falling just short last year. He was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft as the sixth quarterback taken, with the Panthers' Cam Newton going No. 1 overall.
"It's not something I'll forget," Kaepernick said.
Crabtree just adds a dimension to an offense eager to prove something after settling for three field goals by Phil Dawson last time against Carolina.
Did Kaepernick ever doubt Crabtree would be back this season making clutch catches? "No, not at all."
"Just another guy for him to throw the ball to," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "Obviously, Crabtree had a great game last week. He's a guy that gets open, got strong hands, catches the ball. So he's another guy we just have to know where he is."
Notes: Harbaugh said he expects to have his team healthy for the most part. CB Carlos Rogers, who sat out the win at Green Bay with an injured right hamstring, didn't practice Wednesday during the open portion of the workout. "I think we'll be close to full strength," Harbaugh said. "Carlos, still healing, it's a process."
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