This time last year, the 49ers entered the playoffs in an eerily similar situation. The No. 2 seed in the NFC, San Francisco came off a first-round bye to face a former Super Bowl MVP quarterback in the Divisional Round.
This time, however, it will be Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers entering through the tunnel rather than Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints. Even though the 49ers and Packers faced off in Week 1, much has changed since these two teams met at Lambeau Field in September.
The obvious difference can be seen under center, where Colin Kaepernick has since supplanted Alex Smith at quarterback, significantly changing the dynamic of the 49ers offense. Seemingly lost in this new offense has been tight end Vernon Davis, a former Pro Bowler who seemed poised for a career year after the first few weeks of the season.
After hauling in 20 catches for 303 yards and four touchdowns over the first five games (including three receptions for 43 yards and a TD against the Packers), Davis' production steadily dropped off. The one exception was a big showing in San Francisco's Week 11 victory over the Bears on Monday Night Football, Kaepernick's first career start.
Since then, Kaepernick and Davis have failed to find a consistent chemistry, although some of that can be explained by defenses game-planning for the versatile tight end. Of course, this has opened the door for other players to contribute, including Michael Crabtree's breakout season.
However, with injuries mounting on offense and opposing defenses more likely to zero in on the red-hot Crabtee, Davis is more important now than ever. One year after Davis caught fire and the 49ers finished three points short of a Super Bowl berth, the time to step up is now.
As much as the 49ers would love to dictate the tempo with a healthy dose of Frank Gore and LaMichael James, they will have to go to the air at some point to beat the Packers. A Davis effort similar to last year's Divisional Round game against New Orleans (seven catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns) would certainly help that cause.
I'm not suggesting that Davis needs to carry San Francisco to victory, but the team is notably thin at receiver. Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams aren't walking back onto the field this weekend, and neither is running back Kendall Hunter.
Despite the emergence of Delanie Walker in recent weeks, it's clear that Davis is still the 49ers' best receiving option after Crabtree. For a player that once held the all-time record for touchdowns in a single season by a tight end, there's never been a better time for Davis and Kaepernick to hit their stride.
Randy Moss can't put a team on his back anymore, and Ted Ginn and A.J. Jenkins haven't shown anything to indicate that they can handle that burden either. Should the Packers choose to focus on Crabtree, Davis will have his chances to rise to the occasion.
The 49ers can only hope he shows up the way he did one year ago, same time, same place.
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