Michael Crabtree is the difference

ByASHLEY FOX via <a href="http://espn.go.com/video/sportscenter" title="SportCenter" class="espn_sc_byline">SPORTSCENTER </a>
January 07, 2014, 2:30 AM

&#151; -- Jerry Rice, anyone?

Still in his signature khakis, Jim Harbaugh was ebullient following San Francisco's thrilling win over Green Bay on Sunday night. He kissed reporters on the head. He handed out I love yous.

And Harbaugh issued this proclamation about 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree: "The greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything."

Forgive Harbaugh. He was excited. He was probably still cold. He was caught up in the moment. Rice had to be an oversight.

But Harbaugh also had to know that with Crabtree back healthy after missing more than half the season while recuperating from a torn Achilles tendon, the 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC. No one is playing better. No one is as formidable.

The Niners have won seven straight, and it is no accident that six of those wins came with Crabtree back on the field.

After a spectacularly entertaining wild-card weekend that featured three games decided by a field goal or less, it is easy to jump to conclusions. Andy Dalton stinks. Andy Reid still can't manage the clock. Andrew Luck needs a razor.

But there is one undeniable truth that revealed itself over the weekend: A healthy Crabtree is the answer the 49ers needed to make a return trip to the Super Bowl. Their path will be arduous, sure. The three remaining teams in San Francisco's path to Super Bowl XLVIII all beat the Niners in the regular season. But I believe San Francisco can beat Carolina this weekend and can beat either New Orleans or Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

I believe Harbaugh and the Niners will be playing four Sundays from now.

Crabtree is that much of a difference-maker. He is that special.

Harbaugh obviously believes it too.

Crabtree makes the entire offense better. He makes it more multiple. Now, San Francisco can attack the entire width and depth of the field. The 49ers can attack all three levels vertically.

Given his speed, Crabtree can attack the short, intermediate and deep parts of the field on the outside. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin can attack the short and intermediate parts in the seams. Tight end Vernon Davis can attack the short, intermediate and deep parts of the middle of the field.

Now, the Niners can attack outside the numbers, something they couldn't do during the time Crabtree missed earlier in the season. They can attack inside the numbers and the hash. They can attack between the hashes. Before they couldn't. Now they can.

San Francisco has everything a team needs on offense to be successful. Colin Kaepernick has persevered through a bumpy second season at quarterback and showed Sunday why his teammates love him. He is tough. He is clutch. He is a phenomenal athlete and a smart player.

The Niners have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. They have a strong running game with Frank Gore. They have a sure-handed receiver in Boldin and a scoring threat in Davis.

And although the players clearly believe in and follow Kaepernick, part of their identity as an offense is because of Crabtree.

The buzzwords in scouting circles are "playing personality." What is a player's competitive character? On the field, Crabtree straddles the line between being confident and being cocky. No moment is too big for him. He believes he can beat any defensive back he faces. He thinks he is the best.

That's why Harbaugh loves him so. Crabtree is a reflection of his head coach.

"If my life depended on it and someone had to catch a ball, I'd enlist Michael Crabtree to do it," Harbaugh told reporters after the game.

He added: "It's unbelievable. In the northern snowlands down to the tropics and sunny scenes, he's catching the football. Wherever they throw a football, he'll be catching it."

In the Niners' last four playoff games -- three last season, one so far this season -- Crabtree has made 28 catches for 410 yards and three touchdowns. His average yards per catch is 14.6. He has had three 100-yard receiving games, including a 109-yard effort in the Super Bowl loss to Baltimore in which he averaged 21.8 yards per catch.

Crabtree commands attention, which opens up the field for everyone else, including Kaepernick, who against Green Bay picked up 98 yards on seven runs, including four scrambles.

With all due respect to Harbaugh, Crabtree has had his share of drops. He doesn't catch everything. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since entering the league out of Texas Tech as the 10th overall draft pick in 2009, Crabtree has dropped 5.9 percent of his targets. Only five of the 69 qualified receivers have dropped more.

But Harbaugh's point is taken.

There is plenty of football to be played, and hopefully the divisional games this weekend will be as exciting and entertaining as the wild-card games were. But in two weeks, when we're gearing up for the Super Bowl, I believe we'll still be talking about the Niners.

Crabtree makes that much of a difference.

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