GREEN BAY, Wis. – Colin Kaepernick is clutch. Easy, right? He has repeatedly come through in some huge moments for the San Francisco 49ers the past two seasons.
It's hard to argue he's at his best in critical moments. But 49ers left tackle Joe Staley doesn't notice any difference in the young quarterback whether it's third down with a playoff game against Green Bay on the line or the middle of a practice in early August.
That's just who he is, calm and focused, all the time.
"That's one of the things I've always noticed about him," Staley said. "He's very competitive and he's very calm, and he doesn't let too many things rattle him. You see it in practice even. Our training camp practices get real heated with our defense and offense going at it, and the defense will be jawing at him and he's just like, 'Whatever,' and makes plays. That's just the demeanor he has."
Kaepernick hasn't been a great quarterback every week this season. He has had some ups and downs. But he was great in San Francisco's 23-20 playoff win against Green Bay.
With the score tied in the final minutes, Kaepernick bought time on a third-and-10 until he could hit Michael Crabtree for a first down. Later in the drive, with the 49ers just out of Phil Dawson's field-goal range, he tucked the ball and ran around the left side for 11 yards and a first down to Green Bay's 27. A few plays later, Dawson hit a 33-yard field goal to win it, and the 49ers advanced. They'll play at Carolina next week.
It was a tough win by the 49ers in brutally cold conditions. Nobody was mentally tougher than Kaepernick, who didn't wear long sleeves or gloves even though the wind chill was well below zero. He said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tried to talk him into wearing long sleeves on Saturday and Sunday, but he is admittedly hard headed and refused.
"On the important down, on the times when it matters most, that's what I call clutch," Harbaugh said. "He's 'Kaepernick tough.' It's pretty awesome."
Two big plays on the final drive showed Kaepernick at his best.
On the third play of the drive Kaepernick nearly threw an interception to Green Bay cornerback Micah Hyde, who might have returned it for a touchdown but it bounced off his hands and fell incomplete. Kaepernick was close to throwing away the 49ers' season on that play. No big deal. On the next play he stepped up in the pocket with the pass rush coming at him and drilled a 17-yard pass to Crabtree to keep the drive going.
"Ultimately, at the end of games, you have to perform to win," Kaepernick said.
With a little over a minute left, the 49ers had a third-and-8 at the Packers' 38. Harbaugh said the 49ers felt good sending Dawson out for a field goal if they were at the 30-yard line or closer, so San Francisco needed another first down to give him that chance. Kaepernick looked at Crabtree but pulled the ball down.
"It didn't look good to me, so I tried to make something happen," Kaepernick said.
He took off around the left end and and gained 11 yards. That athleticism is rare. He rushed for 98 yards on seven attempts (he also threw for 227 yards), getting into the open field and blowing past Packers defenders.
"The unique part is just how much ground he covers with his strides," Harbaugh said. "How fast he gets an edge and how much ground he covers when he steps up in the pocket. They go quick – 5, 10, 20 (yards) ... it happens pretty fast. I think that's unique. I've never seen that before."
There were many great plays in the 49ers' win, but that one was the most important. Once Kaepernick picked up that first down, the rest of the game became elementary. A few more runs ate up the the final minute, and Dawson won it as time expired.
That kick means the 49ers go to Carolina next Sunday, looking to avenge a 10-9 win by the Panthers in San Francisco earlier this season.
"We owe 'em," said Kaepernick, who is as sedate with the media as he is in hectic game situations.
Last year, Kaepernick was fantastic in the playoffs and the 49ers won the NFC. They have a chance to do that again. Since Sept. 22, San Francisco is 12-2 with the two losses coming by a combined four points. Even though top-seeded Seattle will be very tough to beat at home, it's possible nobody is playing better than San Francisco right now.
A great defense and a strong running game are San Francisco's foundation. Their quarterback's ability to keep his head in tough spots and make huge plays gives them a special element.
"When we needed a play, he got it, whether it was throwing the ball or running," running back Frank Gore said. "Tough guy. A quarterback like that, you do whatever for him."
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