SANTA CLARA -- In two months, the 49ers have transformed their offense into a stronger threat for Sunday's rematch with the Panthers in a divisional playoff game.
Or so it seems statistically, by virtue of a seven-game win streak featuring 26 points and 353 yards per game.
But the 49ers offense was on a roll, too, before the Panthers showed up Nov. 10 at Candlestick Park. The 49ers lost 10-9 with their worst offensive outputs (151 yards, 10 first downs) in coach Jim Harbaugh's three seasons.
That humbling defeat snapped a five-game win streak, in which the 49ers averaged 34.8 points and 357.6 yards per game.
It was Colin Kaepernick's low point of the regular season. He passed for a career-low 91 yards as a starter. He got sacked a career-high six times. He hit Twitter afterward for motivation, highlighting his hate mail (see: "An overrated clown. ... Couldn't handle the pressure.")
Once Kaepernick handled the Packers on Sunday in a 23-20 wild-card win at Green Bay, he didn't hide his motivation for the rematch against the Panthers, saying, "We owe 'em."
"He said that, huh?" Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert told the Charlotte Observer. "That's fine. They owe us. And we'll be ready for them."
These 49ers, however, now include Kaepernick's favorite target, Michael Crabtree. Two months ago, Crabtree had just started practicing for the first time since his May 22 Achilles surgery.
On Sunday, Crabtree had a team-high eight catches for 125 yards, prompting Harbaugh to say the 49ers are "more dangerous" with Crabtree in the lineup this time against Carolina.
Crabtree wasn't the only one missing on Nov. 10, when the 49ers' points all came on first-half field goals. They couldn't compensate that game for the injury exits of tight ends Vernon Davis (concussion) and Garrett Celek (hamstring).
Now all of the 49ers' offensive weapons should be available, aside from fullback Bruce Miller (fractured scapula) and wideout Mario Manningham (knee).
Such options -- and perhaps a more urgent mentality -- have helped the 49ers' output the past five games, as evidenced by their ability to score on 11 of 15 possessions after the 49ers' defense gives up points.
Will an upshot in personnel and their recent strides be enough to conquer the Panthers' elite defense?
"Their whole entire defense is really great," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said on Sirius/XM NFL Radio. "You go to their entire defensive line, and you'd be hard pressed to find people playing better than those four right now."
Staley's matchup Sunday will pit him against Greg Hardy, who accounted for 15 of the Panthers' league-high 60 sacks this season. Hardy missed Monday's practice with bronchitis.
"They lead in top five in several defensive categories, with very well-coached, sound schemes and very good players," Harbaugh said.
Linebacker Luke Kuehley hasn't slow down from his 11-tackle, one-sack effort against the 49ers. He unseated the 49ers' Patrick Willis as The Associated Press' All-Pro first-team inside linebacker next to the 49ers' NaVorro Bowman.
Although the 49ers defense fared well last time against Carolina, bigger roles are expected from linebacker Aldon Smith (12 snaps last game in his return from rehab) and safety Eric Reid (left with a third-quarter concussion).
The Panthers' Cam Newton completed a season-low 50 percent of his passes (16 of 32, 169 yards, one interception) and he ran for just 15 yards at Candlestick. But Newton ran for 72 yards in the Panthers' regular-season finale win at Atlanta, so that dual threat remains.
While tailback DeAngelo Williams and tight end Greg Olsen continue to help key the Panthers offense, this week's mystery is how productive wideout Steve Smith (knee) can be.
Smith has vowed to play. Opposing him could be cornerback Carlos Rogers, who thinks his hamstring could be ready after missing Sunday's wild-card win.
Why are they so determined? Sunday's stakes, after all, are much bigger than their Nov. 10 meeting.
Therein lies the biggest difference between these teams: playoff experience. Only 21 of the Panthers' 53 players have been to the playoffs, and this is Ron Rivera's playoff debut as their coach. Carolina's last postseason trip: 2008.
The 49ers have all but four starters back from last season's Super Bowl, not including wideout Anquan Boldin, who helped key the Baltimore Ravens' win.
If the 49ers do avenge their loss to Carolina, they'll head to their third straight NFC Championship game, and then a week from now, there'll be talk about how to avenge another regular-season loss, either at Seattle or against New Orleans.
49ers (13-4) at Carolina (12-4)
10:05 a.m. FOX
Cornerback Perrish Cox unsure of role but knows he needs to be ready. PAGE 2
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