Through his two seasons as the San Francisco 49ers' head coach, Jim Harbaugh has espoused a theory of offensive football that seems to go against the NFL grain. While many teams were heading in a pass-first direction, Harbaugh stuck to his guns, believing that a team with a dominant offensive line, a brutal rushing attack, and a stifling defense did not need to put too much on the shoulders of its quarterback. He won 13 regular-season games with Alex smith at quarterback in the 2011 season, just missing out on the Super Bowl in a close NFL Championship game loss to the New York Giants.
[Related slideshow: Kaepernick runs 49ers past Packers ]
The plan in Year Two was to stick with Smith, at least after the 49ers finished second in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. And that plan worked well to start. Smith was the league's most efficient passer through the first half of the 2012 campaign. But an injury in what became a tie with the St. Louis Rams in Week 10 led to the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, whom Harbaugh selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Immediately, the 49ers became a different kind of dangerous team, still full of the fundamentals key to any Harbaugh squad, but now able to spread the field with Kaepernick's demon speed and deep arm.
Kaepernick came out of school as the first player in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000; but even that impressive statistical total, and the way in which he played over the second half of the 2012 season, did not prepare anyone, least of all the Packers, for what happened in the 49ers' 45-31 beatdown of Green Bay at San Francisco's Candlestick Park on Sunday night.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game was how well Kaepernick recovered from an early, and potentially fatal, mistake.
When he threw a pick-six to Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields with less than two minutes elapsed in Saturday night's divisional playoff game, it seemed that Kaepernick, who has a grand total of eight NFL starts, might have found the postseason spotlight to be a bit too bright.
"There was a lot of game left, and it was just a bad decision," Kaepernick said immediately following the win. "I know I had to bounce back in order for us to win this game."
Bounce back? Boy, did he ever.
Through the game's first 30 minutes, Kaepernick amassed 148 yards passing (though on just 11 completions in 23 attempts) for two touchdowns and an interception. But where his real value to the team showed up was in the rushing totals; he gained 107 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown, on just 11 carries. Only Ray Rice and Warrick Dunn have had more rushing yards in the first half of a playoff game in the last 10 years.
The only other quarterbacks to throw for two touchdowns and run for another in the first half of a playoff game? Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, and Brett Farve, which put the second-year man from Nevada in pretty good company.
In the second half, Kaepernick stayed on a higher plane. He finished the game with 17 completions on 31 attempts for 263 yards. On the ground, he befuddled the Packers defense even more, amassing 181 yards rushing. No quarterback has ever rushed for more yards in a single game, and to put that final number in its proper perspective, Kaepernick finished with the 14th-highest single-game rushing yardage total in the league's postseason history.
"Our offensive line did an amazing job," Kaepernick said. "They shut everyone down inside, and our receivers and tight ends blocked great outside. Our running backs were running hard, and that made it easier on me."
These things are all true, but even a cursory look at the game would tell you that it was Kaepernick who stumped Green Bay's defense over and over. When they tried to spy the mobile quarterback, he would throw for big gains downfield, When they brought pressure, he would find the open rushing lanes and exploit them. And if the Packers set their sight on any of the 49ers' running backs when San Francisco ran any of its option plays, they could merely hold their collective breath and play that Kaepernick was not the one still holding the ball.
Green Bay's vaunted offense could never seem to get off the ground, or in the air, with consistency when it was needed. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished with 26 completions on 39 attempts for 257 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Running back DaJuan Harris continued his improbable late-season productivity with 53 rushing yards, but San Francisco's defense shut the Packers down when they needed to. When San Francisco's David Akers kicked a 36-yard field goal to end the first half 24-21 in the 49ers' favor, it seemed that Green Bay would be able to hang in and make it competitive.
Not so. Mason Crosby tied the game at 24 with a 32-yard field goal halfway through the third quarter, and that's when the 49ers' offense blasted off. San Francisco powered its way to the NFC Championship game with three unanswered rushing touchdowns from three different offensive players -- a 56-yarder from Kaepernick, and two-yard runs from Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon.
With those two final red-zone bull rushes, the 49ers played the game the way Jim Harbaugh used to have to. With Colin Kaepernick, Harbaugh can call a game he really wants to and may not have imagined he ever could.
And now, his team will look to get over that last hump, proving that yes, in the end, they were only a quarterback away from the Super Bowl.
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