NEW ORLEANS – Almost an hour after the game ended, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was still pleading. OK, maybe that's a little strong, but it's not far from the truth.
Harbaugh did everything possible to quell the quarterback controversy that seems to exist in his mind only. On Sunday, Colin Kaepernick made it all look so easy, picking apart the New Orleans Saints on the way to a 31-21 win that wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate. Even more, he made the 8-2-1 Niners look a team that could be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Yes, Super Bowl champions.
No, this is not a guarantee, but it is a statement on what it takes to win a title. If you want to be special, you have to have a special triggerman and Kaepernick (16-of-25 for 231 yards, one touchdown pass and one interception vs. the Saints) has those qualities.
Many of them are obvious, such as the arm that was slinging one eye-popping throw after another. There were also the Ben Vereen dance moves he used to avoid tackles.
Kaepernick, making his second straight start in place of Alex Smith, is a long, limber array of fast-twitch muscles. He plays the game at a different speed than most other people. And that's the part that is easy to see. It was apparent on back-to-back plays as San Francisco struck first for a 7-0 lead.
After completing a short pass that wide receiver Mario Manningham turned into a 40-yard gain, Kaepernick hit Manningham again for a 13-yarder, making an out pattern look like a throw between friends at the park.
"This is his second start?" Manningham said, rhetorically. "He's playing like he's been in there forever."
On the next play, Kaepernick ran a read-option fake to Frank Gore and then ran untouched for a 7-yard score and a 7-0 lead.
On the next drive, the 49ers didn't score, but Kaepernick still flashed brilliance. On a second-and-17 scramble play to the right, Kaepernick avoided a blitz by the Saints (one of New Orleans' 15 through the first three quarters) and eventually hit fullback Bruce Miller. But it was the way that Kaepernick connected, hitting the stocky Miller on the run and giving him a chance to turn the play into something.
"We practice that stuff all the time with Colin," Miller said. "He has the unique ability to extend plays and make something happen when you think it's dead. He opens up so much more. The amount of things you can do with him is endless."
Pinned at his own 6-yard line late in the third quarter, Kaepernick had the game in his hands. On a second-and-8, he dropped into his own end zone with a packed house screaming. He delivered yet another bullet, this time to Michael Crabtree for 15 yards and a first down. Two plays later he converted another third down.
Then came a seemingly impossible situation. Facing third-and-11 from his own 35, Kaepernick dropped once again and hit Walker deep down the middle for 25 yards. This was a dagger throw right to the heart of the New Orleans defense. Put in a bigger way, here was Kaepernick, clinging to a seven-point lead with the Superdome screaming and Drew Brees on the other sideline. This was dangerous, by football standards.
So kid, what were you thinking?
"To be honest, I wasn't thinking about any of that stuff," Kaepernick said with a smile. Dressed in a burgundy dress shirt, blue jeans and matching burgundy Creative Rex sneakers (Vans, for those of us from back in the day), Kaepernick is still a kid in all the best ways. Pressure? What pressure? The dude is just having a good time.
And with that ability, we should all be so care free.
Unfortunately, the older we get, the more we worry about every detail and how it will be interpreted. Coaches fret about saying something as simple as, "Kaepernick is the starter because I think he gives us the best chance to win a title."
That's Harbaugh's world. That's why he's paid the big money. He looks over at Smith and wonders about what his veteran will think. He looks at Kaepernick and sees the tools, but knows that the NFL humbles everybody at some point in time.
"We'll deal with that later on," Harbaugh said in his postgame remarks about the quarterback situation while also going out of his way to talk about the physical nature of the game.
Later, after he had dressed in casual travel clothes and thrown a camouflage backpack over his shoulder, he was still trying to lead a couple of reporters on some misdirection."Come on, don't just go for the low-hanging fruit. You guys are better than that," said Harbaugh, who earlier tried to convince reporters that he held Smith out of the game because of lingering concussion symptoms, even though Harbaugh also admitted that Smith had been cleared to play on Saturday night.
Then again, maybe he'd be well enough off to listen to left tackle Joe Staley, who threw a lot of compliments at Kaepernick after the game. Staley glanced toward where Smith was standing and understood the situation the way pretty much everybody can see it.
"Hey, Alex is my best friend, but I'm willing to go to battle with either of them," Staley said.
That's the business.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 12:
• If you haven't watched Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie running back Doug Martin this season, give him a good look at some point. Martin is not only physically gifted, but he has a great understanding of how the game works, particularly for a guy who didn't play football until high school. The best recent example was his 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons. On a toss to the left, Atlanta did a good job of defending the play as linebacker Stephen Nicholas set the edge. However, when veteran linebacker Mike Peterson overran the play, Martin did a great job on the read and cut back to the right to make a potentially complicated play look easy. He's got great instincts and understanding of the traffic of the game.
• I really liked the execution by the Chicago Bears in the second-quarter two-point conversion run by holder Adam Podlesh in the victory over the Minnesota Vikings. However, I was left to wonder a couple of things. First, why would you use that play on a two-point conversion rather than on a fake field goal? Second, why would you use it in that situation against Minnesota when you were at home and about to go up 17-3 in a game you should probably win anyway? What was the advantage of being up 18-3?
• Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate still doesn't look like he'll ever become a No. 1 threat, but he's having an outstanding season for a guy who a team source suggested was almost given up on after his first two seasons. Tate has six touchdowns this season after getting only three in his first two years. On Sunday, he came up with a stunning 32-yard reception to set up Seattle's first touchdown in the loss to the Miami Dolphins. Tate kept his concentration as he dove over the top of a defender who was falling in front of him.
• Speaking of the Seahawks, kudos to rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, who completed 16 consecutive passes against Miami. That put him one short of the franchise record of 17 held by Warren Moon. Give Wilson a little more time and he'll eventually hold that mark. It's also fair to say that Wilson will quickly be one of the top three quarterbacks in Seahawks history, not that competing with the likes of Jim Zorn, Dave Krieg and Matt Hasselback is that difficult of a task.
• Meanwhile, give Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill a lot of credit for leading the Dolphins to a comeback victory. Tannehill completed seven of nine passes for 156 yards in the fourth quarter. In that stretch, he threw one touchdown pass, engineered another touchdown drive and directed the Dolphins for the winning field goal. Tannehill didn't get any cheapies, either. Only one of those completions went for less than 18 yards. Tannehill threw one pretty deep pass after another in this game. Most importantly, Tannehill overcame an early interception. The pick was a carbon copy of a mistake throw he made earlier in the season against the New York Jets. Tannehill, who had five interceptions in the previous two games, is very good throwing on the move. But he sometimes tries to fit throws after drifting too far to his right. Fortunately for him and Dolphins, he fixed that quickly.
• Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne continues to be the team's best re-signing this offseason in their rebuilding project. Wayne had eight catches for 102 yards in the win over the Buffalo Bills and now has 84 receptions for 1,105 yards this season. He is on pace for career highs in both receptions (122) and yards (1,608 yards). He also forced Buffalo rookie Stephen Gilmore into a critical pass interference penalty with less than two minutes left, allowing the Colts to burn the rest of the clock. While plenty of people in Indianapolis are trying to sell Andrew Luck as the team's MVP (if not the league MVP, which is just absurd), plenty of statistics suggest Wayne is the team's top player this season.
• St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins continued his strong play since being held out of a game at San Francisco because of a curfew violation. Jenkins returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in St. Louis' road win against the Arizona Cardinals. Granted, the Cardinals aren't a great challenge these days with Ryan Lindley at quarterback, but it was truly exceptional the way Jenkins jumped the route on the first interception.
• Most football fights don't mean much, but the one between Cincinnati and Oakland was a doozy, featuring three ejections. After some silly taunting by the Raiders of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (probably something like: "Hey, redhead, at least you didn't score 40 on us."), Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth eventually got into it with defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. That matchup is suitable for an event in the Octagon. Then again, if the Raiders gave half that much effort in the actual game, they might not have been torched for 34 points or more for the fourth straight contest.
• A quick tale of the tape for the Pittsburgh Steelers: 49 yards rushing, eight fumbles (five lost), three interceptions. The Steelers were playing with No. 3 quarterback Charlie Batch, but even with Ben Roethlisberger behind center, they would have still lost Sunday in Cleveland. If the Steelers were serious Super Bowl contenders, they would've won a game like this in their sleep. Pittsburgh has the edge over Cincinnati for the final playoff spot in the AFC, but that hold is tenuous.
• How bad is Kansas City's eight-game losing streak? It was their seventh consecutive game scoring 16 points or less. In three of those games, Kansas City has been limited to less than 10. Adding to the Chiefs' futility: they had another turnover Sunday against the Broncos, giving them at least one giveaway in every game this season. It's one thing to be bad, it's another thing to be bad and boring.
• Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker continues to be so erratic (23-for-40 Sunday with 2 INTs) that the Titans have little hope but to become a boom-or-bust offense with him under center. The Titans don't look like serious contenders anytime soon.
• Ditto for Minnesota and quarterback Christian Ponder, whose play continues to devolve. Ponder didn't have top target Percy Harvin, but it's unacceptable to have only 159 yards on 43 passing attempts. It's also the third time in the past five games that Ponder has average less than 4.0 yards per attempt.
• Just as I was getting ready to write a glowing article about the play of Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, they each reportedly are facing a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing policy. The Seattle defense was already starting to show some leakage in recent weeks, but four games without Sherman and Browner is going to be too much for the Seahawks to hold on to the final playoff berth.
• How bad are things for Miami's attendance? More than a decade of consistently bad to mediocre football has worn down the once-proud franchise that team president Mike Dee told the Palm Beach Post there needs to be serious changes to Sun Life Stadium. The 74,500-seat stadium has too many bad seats by modern standards. All the end zone spots that people don't want to buy anymore are too plentiful. Even in their heyday, the Dolphins had problems selling those tickets. However, Dee's belief that the stadium needs a roof is off-base. Rather, the Dolphins need to build a team that can take advantage of the intense, early-season heat.
• Only the San Diego Chargers could turn a fourth-and-29 play into disaster. With less than two minutes remaining and clinging to a 13-10 lead, the Chargers allowed Joe Flacco and Ray Rice of Baltimore to turn a simple dump pass into a 30-yard gain, a first down and an eventual field goal to force overtime. Along the way, three Chargers ran into each other, allowing Rice to escape. If you were looking for a final nail in coach Norv Turner's career in San Diego, that's pretty much it.
Fantasy advice for Monday night's Panthers-Eagles game:
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