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A catch to save your life? 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh would pick Michael Crabtree

SANTA CLARA, Calif. While this sounded reality-show melodramatic, it did make a point:

San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh says if he had to pick one player to catch a football, with Harbaugh’s life at stake, he’d choose wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

So, coach, mind elaborating?

“A lot of talent,” said Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback. “A lot of physical ability and competitiveness. … It’s important for him to make plays. He’s got a lot of pride about his own personal performance and the team’s performance.

“He catches the football. A lot of people talk about different things for receivers: 40 times, how fast they run around the little orange cones, etc. But it’s pretty darn important to catch the ball for a receiver.

“I just have never personally seen anybody catch the ball better than Michael Crabtree does.”

Remember there’s a pretty high bar for greatness at wide receiver around the 49ers. A fellow named Jerry Rice probably did more at the position than anyone in football history.

But the praise for Crabtree has merit; in the playoff victory last week against the Packers in frigid Green Bay, he caught eight passes for 125 yards. To say the weather would test any players’ hands is a given.

The Carolina Panthers didn’t have to worry about Crabtree in Week 10 in their 10-9 victory against the 49ers in San Francisco. He was sidelined with an Achilles injury. He’ll play Sunday, apparently fully recovered, and that in itself speaks to Crabtree’s work ethic.

Crabtree is less than eight months removed from that Achilles rupture. Doctors say it takes anywhere from nine months to a year just for an athlete to return to physical readiness following that injury.

So, yes, Crabtree is pretty psyched to get a second chance to play the Panthers, with a spot in the NFC Championship Game at stake.

“I missed it. We lost that game, but we have better intentions for this game,” Crabtree said Thursday. “A lot of people focusing on this.”

The Panthers’ relatively inexperienced secondary avoided Crabtree in November, and the 49ers also lost an elite tight end in that game in Vernon Davis. Both will be available Sunday, giving quarterback Colin Kaepernick plenty of targets.

“There’s not too many people that can catch the football like him,” Kaepernick said. “He has very strong hands. His catch radius is huge.”

Crabtree had a reputation at Texas Tech for going outside the box to improve his hands. He’d make catches out of a tennis-ball machine to improve his ability to track a fast-moving ball.

These days it’s more about maintaining the strength in small muscles along his hands.

“I do a lot of stuff with focus. And a lot of things with my hands at home, squeezing a ball,” Crabtree said. “Just strengthening my hands.”

His 49ers coaches have mentioned frequently this week how physical the Panthers’ secondary is this season. Crabtree was asked Thursday how that factors in this game.

“We’re physical, too. I can’t wait to play,” Crabtree said. “Not too much into talking about it.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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