CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree could be Jerry Rice, but as far as the Carolina Panthers are concerned he is No. 15. Tight end Vernon Davis could be Dwight Clark, but to the Panthers he's just No. 85.
Much has been said about how Crabtree and Davis will be the difference when the 49ers face the Panthers in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Bank of America Stadium.
It's been pointed out that Crabtree didn't play when Carolina beat San Francisco 10-9 on Nov. 10, and Davis left with a concussion in the first half.
But to Carolina, they're numbers -- just as New Orleans' big weapons (tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles) were when the Panthers beat the Saints 17-13 in Week 16.
Carolina's second-ranked defense doesn't see stars. It sees numbers. It sees patterns. It sees schemes and tendencies. It sees tackles and opportunities to force turnovers.
"Crabtree is a great wide receiver," said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the team's leading tackler with 176. "Vernon Davis, he's great, too -- (A) we've got to know where they are, (B) as long as we're in the position coaches put us in, we're in a good spot.
"81 [Anquan Boldin], 15 and 85 are their guys. As long as you know where those guys are and what they like doing, then we just have to go out there and compete.''
That's one reason this defense has been so successful. The players understand the importance of staying in their lanes, playing containment and making tackles, no matter who is in the game.
"We always just look at those guys as numbers, man,'' cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We don't look at a guy as him being Michael Crabtree, him being Vernon Davis.
"You can't get caught up in this is Michael Crabtree. I don't care if it was Jerry Rice in front of me, I just go out and play football.''
That's the philosophy Panthers coach Ron Rivera had as a player with the Chicago Bears and a defensive coordinator with the Bears and Chargers.
"When you play defensive football ... you play the groupings, you play the combinations in terms of route combinations and what they do. You try to understand that before what they do,'' Rivera said.
"When you start worrying about individual players ... well, you've got to understand, what are those players going to do?''
Rivera learned that from former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
"You attack what they do,'' he said. "They may have some good players, special players, but you've still got to stop what they do.''
The number the Panthers are most concerned with is 15.1, the number of points they have allowed per game this season to rank second in the NFL.
That was a big reason they won the first game. They held a San Francisco team that has at times struggled in the red zone to three field goals.
Whether Crabtree or Davis is in the lineup doesn't matter to the Panthers. In the first game, Davis was thrown a swing pass on second-and-5 from the Carolina 6. Safety Mike Mitchell hit Davis so hard that that he lost the ball for what initially appeared to be a fumble before it was ruled an incompletion.
Davis left with a concussion. Sorry, No. 85 left.
"That's the mindset we take,'' said linebacker Thomas Davis, who pounced on the ball, thinking it was a fumble. "We don't go out worrying about who's in the game and who's not. We play for each other. We play the game together.
"We've been doing that all season long. For us it's about competing. When we compete like we need to compete, we're hard to beat."