The 49ers kind of quietly finished off their first half of the season by roasting Jacksonville in London last weekend, and will start their second half Sunday vs. the Panthers with a solid 6-2 record.
Perhaps the biggest news for the 49ers though will be the return of three key players they've been without for most or all of the 2013 season thus far. First off, Aldon Smith, who was sentenced to a 30-day rehab stint after week 3, has been re-instated with the team and should be a go for a full work load Sunday. The return of Smith will drastically improve the 49ers defense, especially their front-7, as they'll be getting back the most dynamic pass-rusher in the league. Despite missing 5 games, I expect Smith to show up ready to rock and provide a big impact in Sunday's game. The other guy the 49ers are hoping makes an impact upon his return this Sunday is wide receiver Mario Manningham. Unlike Smith, Manningham hasn't stepped on the field yet this season, missing the teams first 8 games in recovery from last seasons ACL-tear. However, Manningham has been practicing for a few weeks now, and all indications are pointing towards him being in solid condition and ready to make an impact right away.
While Aldon Smith is obviously key as the teams most dominant pass-rusher, Manningham is crucial because the 49ers simply do not have many receivers who have been getting the job done this season. Outside of a few nice outings from Anquan Boldin, 49ers receivers have been one of the worst units in the league. If your wondering why Colin Kaepernick's passing numbers were so pedestrian in the first half, that's played a big role (take away the opener vs. Green Bay and he's downright bad in the air). Not far behind Manningham will be the return of Michael Crabtree, Kaep's number one receiver and the guy that should really open up and complete this offense. He was activated from the PUP list this week, and should make his debut at some point towards the end of November or early December. He'll be the real difference maker to this offense when he gets back, assuming he gets up to speed in a timely fashion and avoids setbacks. Untill then, Manningham will give Kaepernick a viable #3 option in the passing game for the first time all season and thus alleviate some defensive focus off Bolden and Davis. The 49ers' offense, which almost appears as if they've been held back a bit by the conservative calling since week one, is really set to unleash in the second half.