SANTA CLARA -- Years after linebacker Luke Kuechly turned down Jim Harbaugh's recruitment pitch to come to Stanford, Kuechly could play a big factor Sunday in denying the 49ers a third straight trip to the NFC Championship game.

Kuechly has had a banner second season with the Carolina Panthers, so much so that he's unseat the 49ers' Patrick Willis on the Associated Press' All-Pro First Team.

On Sunday in Carolina, Kuechly will lead the defensive-strong Panthers up against the 49ers in a divisional-round playoff game.

Harbaugh saw Kuechly's potential as a high school star in Cincinnati, Ohio. So why couldn't Harbaugh lure Kuechley to join Stanford's rising program?

"Um, I was close, real close when I went out there," Kuechly said on a media conference call Thursday. "It felt so far away.

"They always say a plane flight is a plane flight, but long plane flight and I realized my parents would not be able to get to a lot of games. It was the distance more than anything."

How did Harbaugh take the news that Kuechly picked Boston College instead?

"Obviously he was bummed out a little bit. But he was very cool about it," said Kuechly, the Panthers' first-round draft pick last season. "He wished me luck and wished me well in everything I did."

Kuechly produced 11 tackles and a sack in leading the Panthers past Harbaugh's 49ers two months ago, in 10-9 fashion at Candlestick Park.

In the days prior to that game, Harbaugh reminisced about his failed recruitment.

"(I) sat in the home visit in the living room there in Cincinnati with the Kuechlys and felt confident and sure that Luke would be a Stanford man," Harbaugh said. "And (I) walked out of the living room that night feeling pretty darn good about it and got the tragic news the following week that he was going to Boston College."

Harbaugh and Kuechly crossed paths again at last year's NFL scouting combine.

"At the combine, he was joking around with me a little bit but was all in fun," Kuechly recalled.

If Kuechly is to thwart Harbaugh again this Sunday, the Panthers will have to slow down a 49ers offense that is thriving behind Colin Kaepernick, who passed for 227 yards and ran for 98 in a 23-20 wild-card win at Green Bay.

Kaepernick had a career-low 91 passing yards the last time he faced the Panthers. But as Kuechly noted: "If you look at the Packers game, he did a great job running, made great decisions on when to throw and run. Obviously his legs are a weapon and he knows that."

Frank Gore's veteran legs also concern the Panthers.

"He's patient runner and he hits his spots," Kuechly said. "That's what makes him tricky. He's going to wait for his time, find a crease and pop out the other side."

This is the first time the Panthers will face 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree, who was still recovering from Achilles surgery last game.

Kuechly's take on Crabtree?

"Just another guy for (Kaepernick) to throw the ball to," Kuechly responded. "Crabtree had a great game last week. Gets open along the edge. We've just got to know where he is."

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.