An improved passing threat is what the 49ers need in their playoff push. They certainly have a capable quarterback in Kaepernick, who's averaging fewer passes per game (24.8) than any other starter.
But does Kaepernick have enough targets? He's getting more — and that doesn't include former star Terrell Owens, who will only serve as an honorary game captain today.
Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, last year's team-leading receivers, practiced together this past week for the first time since last season.
While Crabtree still looks a month away from his season debut because of an Achilles tear, Manningham could play Sunday for the first time since suffering a season-ending knee injury Dec. 23.
Manningham is needed to fill what has been an unproductive No. 2 wideout role. Same goes for Crabtree. Without them, the 49ers have counted on Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis in the passing game, while getting little production from Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin, Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore, who was cut last week.
In the grand scheme of offense, the 49ers are not a pass-oriented team. Maintaining a league-best rushing attack remains their utmost priority. Passing-game warts are masked by the fact they have topped 30 points in each of game of their winning streak.
To counter an unthreatening passing game, the 49ers have leaned heavily on running back Frank Gore. More ground is conquered by the likes of backup tailbacks Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, and especially Kaepernick, who's a dual threat like Panthers counterpart Cam Newton.
While Kaepernick is no slouch in the passing department, the 49ers haven't needed him to air it out during their streak, which has come against inferior teams: St. Louis (3-6), Houston (2-6), Arizona (4-4), Tennessee (4-4) and Jacksonville (0-8).
Sure, Kaepernick and Gore each ran for two touchdowns in the 49ers' 42-10 rout of Jacksonville in London. Those scores came against the league's last-ranked run defense. In contrast, the Panthers are allowing the second-fewest rushing yards per game (79.1), so if the 49ers have trouble eclipsing that mark, they might need more aerial support.
"You can't wish people open against this defense. They're too good," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "They've created too many turnovers (19, tied for fourth-most in the NFL) and their offense has been very opportunistic converting those turnovers into points." The 49ers have done the same, scoring off all 13 turnovers they have forced during their win streak (nine touchdowns, four field goals).
Another similarity between the 49ers' and Panthers' offenses is their fourth-down proficiency: the 49ers have converted 6 of 8, the Panthers 5 of 7.
"It shows you have confidence in your players, and secondly, you have confidence in your defense," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose fourth-down gambles helped earn him the nickname "Riverboat Ron." The 49ers converted on fourth down en route to a touchdown on their opening drive last game. It came on a run. The catalyst for their win streak: a 34-yard touchdown run by Gore on fourth-and-1 in St. Louis.
Passing might win the highlight reel, but the 49ers aren't concerned. Fullback Bruce Miller was unapologetic.
"We have to run the football to be effective as an offense," he said.