In Week 10, the 49ers were somewhat exposed.
Carolina, whose best win was a victory over St. Louis at the time, did not seem to stand a chance against the defending NFC Champions.
The game started out with San Francisco moving the ball fairly effectively down the field and Cam Newton struggling to convert a first down. After the first half, however, the 49ers had a meager 9-7 lead. San Francisco would be unable to score the rest of the game against one of the league's best defenses and lost the contest 10-9.
The reason? Carolina is very similar to San Francisco.
Both teams have strong rushing attacks that anchor the offensive side of the ball, as well as tight ends (Greg Olsen and Vernon Davis) who serve as security blankets to mobile quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.
Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin are veteran wide receivers who are able to give both quarterbacks the opportunity to air it out when needed.
Both defenses are ferocious and especially strong in terms of their linebacking corps. While the 49ers field Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman every Sunday, the Panthers counter with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Both teams' pass rushes are quite strong too. Greg Hardy has been a revelation for Carolina with 15 sacks, while Aldon Smith has come back strong after missing part of this season due to alcohol-related issues.
These teams are structured so similarly that they almost cancel each other out. The one difference between both teams is Michael Crabtree.
As noted by ESPN.com, Jim Harbaugh pointed out that the Texas Tech product is "the greatest catcher of all time," although definitely engaging in a little bit of hyperbole. However, Crabtree did look like a bona-fide No. 1 receiver on Sunday at Green Bay.
The statistics themselves are impressive. With eight receptions, 13 targets and 125 hard-fought yards, Crabtree looked like the best receiver on the field. He was targeted in a multitude of ways, with crossing routes as well as the occasional deep ball. His presence on the field definitely disrupted Green Bay's defense all night.
Past the numbers, Crabtree was finding ways to get open in big moments. When Harbaugh decided to go for it on fourth down early in the first quarter, Kaepernick found Crabtree for 31 yards to set up a crucial field goal. On 3rd-and-10 late in the fourth quarter, Crabtree had a huge 17-yard reception which extended the eventual game-winning drive.
These kind of plays are the ones that separate Super Bowl contenders from ones that are merely in the playoffs. Crabtree's play was exceptional because he found ways to help his quarterback make plays in big moments in a tough, cold road game. If Crabtree can replicate his success in Green Bay, look for the 49ers to advance to their third straight NFC Championship game.