Expect more congratulations for Vernon Davis (No. 85) from his 49ers teammates on Sunday.
So new, in fact, that he’ll have access to motivation previously unavailable this season.
Call it a redemptive force powering the greater postseason good for San Francisco.
Davis sustained a concussion at the 7:19 mark of the second quarter during these teams’ first matchup. He left the Week 10 game against Carolina with just one catch for two yards to his name.
Not only did Davis sustain a serious injury when his head slammed on the hard Candlestick field, he also failed to secure a critical first-down-netting pass from Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers stood at 2nd-and-5 at the Panthers 6-yard line.
Moving the chains would put them just inches away from touchdown paydirt and a dominant 13-0 lead.
Regrettably, Davis dropped Kaepernick’s bootleg pass to the sideline when he made an up-field move, with safety Mike Mitchell supplying the big hit.
San Francisco settled for a field goal and 9-0 advantage. Carolina ended up winning 10-9.
Along with the absent Michael Crabtree, it’s clear how ineffective the 49ers were offensively without Pro Bowl tight end Davis.
Kaepernick compiled the worst statistical production of his career back on Nov. 10.
He amassed just 107 total yards (91 passing) on top of one interception and an utterly putrid 7.7 QBR.
He produced only three first downs through the air.
ESPN Stats & Information also notes that it was the first time Kaepernick did not complete a pass deeper than 10 yards downfield with multiple attempts.
The once-healthy Mario Manningham led all 49ers receivers with 30 yards. Anquan Boldin was next up with 27.
No pass-catcher had a number greater than three in the “REC” column of the box score.
Making matters even worse for Davis is that his replacement, rookie Vance McDonald, failed in crunch time.
The first-year tight end dropped a perfectly thrown strike from Kaepernick down the seam early in the fourth quarter. It would have placed the 49ers just outside Carolina’s end zone.
They would have at least pushed the lead to 12-7 with a short Phil Dawson field goal.
A touchdown would have essentially sealed the game knowing how stingy the defenses had been up to that point.
Even with All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly’s fantastic coverage on the play, Davis would have made that catch if given the chance.
Moving forward to the divisional playoff matchup this weekend, Davis will get that redemption for both himself and, ultimately, the 49ers.
The reason being? Think: deep ball…touchdown.
He averaged an even better 18.5-yard clip against the Green Bay Packers last week.
Davis rated second at his position with an eye-popping 13 receiving touchdowns as well.
San Francisco’s pass-catching dynamo hauled in another score on Wild Card Weekend.
Furthermore, Davis was unrivaled when it came to snaring passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield.
He devastated opposing defenses to the tune of 11 catches for 409 yards and six touchdowns on those very throws, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Davis’ touchdown against Green Bay, of course, came on a 28-yard beauty down the seam.
The Panthers pass defense, despite being ranked No. 6 overall, surrendered 48 completions of 20 or more yards.
And while its 17 touchdowns allowed were the third-fewest, one particular defensive back was responsible for a gaudy one-third of that total.
Strong safety Quintin Mikell has given up six touchdowns in coverage this year.
Four of those have come in Carolina’s last four games, with three courtesy of the opposition’s tight end.
The reputable pundits at Pro Football Focus reveal that Mikell has allowed the ninth-highest passer rating (135.3) and second-most touchdowns among NFL safeties.
He has also coughed up four plays of 20-plus yards and hasn’t tallied a single interception all season.
So, unlike the early season gridiron battle, Davis is healthy for Round 2 of 49ers-Panthers.
Which means offensive coordinator Greg Roman can now call plays utilizing the ideal weapon against the vulnerable Mikell.
Davis is the fastest player on the field at any point in time with his freakish 4.3 speed.
He can outrun any linebacker, including potential Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. He’s also bigger, faster and stronger than most secondary personnel, especially the 5’10’’, 33-year-old Mikell.
And when it comes to the technical side of things, the 6’3’’ Davis averages the second-most yards per route run at his position (2.12). This tight end can simply outmaneuver any cover man in his way.
Davis’ quarterback, meanwhile, is one of the most accurate downfield passers in the NFL.
Kaepernick boasts the fifth-highest accuracy percentage on passes of 20 or more yards, per PFF. He has 21 completions for 683 yards and six touchdowns on those throws.
Put two and two together, and this quarterback-tight end duo will exploit Mikell deep when this postseason head-to-head comes to fruition.
The 49ers will employ a steady dose of running back Frank Gore to set up the offense, control time of possession, mitigate the pass rush and, for these purposes, establish play action.
Kaepernick ranks No. 4 in the league when it comes to most touchdowns and highest passer rating on those misdirection throws, per PFF.
That production can only increase with San Francisco featuring a full array of offensive weapons this time around.
Kuechly, as great as he is, will eventually bite just enough on a run fake.
Davis will then gain the slight edge he needs and burn the already disadvantaged Mikell over top.
Who will prove most valuable to the 49ers on Sunday?
This opportunity might only present itself a couple of times for San Francisco.
But when it does, Kaepernick and Davis will capitalize like they did just last week.
Come Divisional Sunday, all 49ers who missed on-field action against the Panthers earlier this year will get some measure of vengeance one way or another.
Crabtree will help Kaepernick power the offense between the 20-yard lines. He’ll lead the team in receptions and receiving yards.
Aldon Smith will register his first crucial pressures against Cam Newton, while Eric Reid will win a pivotal short-yardage rematch with fullback Mike Tolbert.
The Kaepernick-to-Davis connection, however, will materialize as the decisive factor.
San Francisco 49ers 20, Carolina Panthers 17—Davis’ touchdown proves the difference.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16