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49ers' Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree make strides to return

SANTA CLARA — At last, Mario Manningham is back in game-week mode.

And that has a far better ring to it than rehab mode given the countless hours he has spent for much of the last year nursing himself back to health following major knee surgery.

Manningham walked through the locker room Wednesday, binder in hand and headed for meetings with the expectation that he will play for the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) in Sunday's game against Carolina (5-3), even if coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to formally say so.

"Mario, he's a receiver who's easy to throw to, so it's not going to take much time for him to get back up to speed," quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.

Manningham is on the active roster again nearly 11 months after a knee injury derailed his season and forced him to the sidelines long before the Super Bowl run. Michael Crabtree is back on the practice field six months after he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon that also sent him to surgery.

Kaepernick credits both of his star wideouts for returning to their former explosive selves so soon. Such compliments go a long way.

"It's important when it comes from your teammates," Manningham said. "I know I can get better, everybody can always get better. I'm trying to take it step by step and do what I can do to make my team look better. I'm practicing like I'm playing, just trying to make plays and come out with a 'W.'"

At the start of practice, the first full session for Crabtree since he was medically cleared Tuesday, he planted hard with his healthy right foot to cut inside on a short route. Between drills, he shuffled his feet in a little jive as Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." blared from the sound system.

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