The 49ers opened with an NFC semifinal victory over the Green Bay Packers and it didn't take long thereafter for wide receiver Michael Crabtree to snap into looking-ahead mode.
He entered the playoffs determined to improve greatly on his postseason debut of a year ago, which ended in utter frustration. And things got off to a good start Saturday night, as he teamed up with quarterback Colin Kaepernick to catch nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
"It felt like we were in the same place winning that game," said Crabtree, referring to last year's playoff-opening win against the New Orleans Saints. "It's what we do at the next game. It's all about the next game."
That next game arrives Sunday against the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome at noon (PT). He'll be matched throughout the day against cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. And Crabtree figures to be the person Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, former the 49ers head coach, will spend most of his time plotting ways to slow down in the 49ers' passing game.
After all, in the past six games Crabtree has caught 44 passes for 657 yards and six touchdowns from Kaepernick.
All the other wide receivers -- Randy Moss, Ted Ginn and A.J. Jenkins -- and tight ends -- Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and Garrett Celek -- have combined over that same period of time for just 35 receptions for 524 yards and one touchdown.
The Packers devoted some additional manpower to slow down Crabtree on Saturday, but it did not seem to work so well in the 49ers' 45-31 victory.
"I saw a couple double teams, especially in the red zone," Crabtree said. "We have so many players on our team: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Ted Ginn Jr, Randy Moss and our running game. We have too many playmakers for anyone to get double. We have a great team."
But nobody has been nearly as productive as Crabtree since the quarterback switch occurred.
"He's played great," Kaepernick said. "He is a key player in this offense. He is a playmaker. He is someone that we want to get the ball into his hands and see what he can do."
Ah, those hands.
It's difficult now to mock Harbaugh for his offseason assertion that Crabtree has the best hands he has ever seen. Crabtree seems to be the only person on the 49ers who does not regularly struggle to catch Kaepernick's laser-like throws. But even Crabtree had a throw on a shallow crossing route deflect off his hands on Saturday. It was the only blemish on an otherwise sterling performance.
"I think it's pretty well documented how vital he is," Harbaugh said. "He was outstanding. The back-shoulder catches, those are great plays. The catch and runs again. The yards that he gets after the catch. He's really like a running back when he gets the ball in his hands. And he was outstanding."
Former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan thought Crabtree could emerge into the best player of the draft class of 2009 when he selected him with the No. 10 overall selection. And, certainly, a convincing argument can be made that he is better than -- or at least on par -- with each of the nine players selected ahead of him: Matthew Stafford, Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eugene Monroe and B.J. Raji.
Crabtree consistently posted relatively good statistics in his first three seasons despite the lack of a prolific passing game. But, now, he has taken his game to a new level. With 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season, he became the first 49ers player since Terrell Owens in 2003 to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving.
"It's hard work, offseason program, tough player, very talented player," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "It's that simple. The guy is working hard, taking his game up a notch quite frankly and he's a big spark for us."
The offseason was also the first time in his 49ers career that he appeared in any exhibition games. Crabtree underwent foot surgery before his rookie season and also missed camp and five games due to a contract stalemate. He was not completely healthy his season with the foot, and he missed camp with a neck injury. And in 2011, he missed camp after another surgery to repair a broken foot. Crabtree missed 10 days of camp this season with a calf injury, but it was just a minor setback, as the team was extra cautious before clearing him to return to practice.
"(I'm) real impressed," 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "He's grown. Early in his career he had a lot of injuries, just battling foot injuries and things like that but now he's stepping into his own. He's up there with those guys. Throw him the ball, he can catch any ball, he can run after the catch, he's explosive, he can get in and out of cuts.
"What else do you want out of a guy than that? He just keeps growing, keeps improving every week. Him and Kap have a connection going and I hope they keep it going."
A year ago, the 49ers season ended in a 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants. In that game, Crabtree caught just one pass for 3 yards. That's why he wasn't in a mood to celebrate Saturday after his stellar postseason opener.
"Every playoff game I have something to prove," Crabtree said. "Last year it was bad, it was what it was. We are on a new year and I'm just trying to make a play and get that win."