SAN FRANCISCO -- Perhaps 49ers">49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is a football savant, because his decision to change starting quarterbacks midway through the season is, for the time being, proving to be as cunning as it was calculated.
Colin Kaepernick was that good for Harbaugh and the 49ers on Saturday night, accounting for 444 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-31 victory over the Packers in Candlestick Park. The win advanced San Francisco to its second straight NFC Championship Game, where it will play the winner of Sunday's Atlanta-Seattle showdown. (The conference final will be in San Francisco if the Seahawks win, and in Atlanta if the Falcons prevail.)
Kaepernick was one of several critical questions facing the 49ers going into Saturday night, the others being the potential effectiveness of defensive end Justin Smith and kicker David Akers, who came in battling a triceps tear and a case of the yips, respectively. Smith played well but was nowhere close to his level of usual dominance, and Akers was good on each of his PATs and a 36-yard field goal. But the night belonged to Kaepernick, whose performance was sublime.
The former Nevada star showed none of the nerves normally associated with a QB in his first playoff start. His 181 yards rushing are an NFL record for quarterbacks in the regular season or playoffs, and his 263 yards passing were six more than celebrated counterpart Aaron Rodgers, the 2011 league MVP.
When Kaepernick took a knee following the final snap, he turned to running back Frank Gore, and the two nearly rested their helmets facemask to facemask. They smiled at each other, then Gore said: "You're a baller."
In football vernacular, the salutation was respect of the highest order. For good reason. Kaepernick definitely saved his best for when the games matter the most. In his final four outings of the regular season he rushed for a total of 117 yards, 64 fewer than he had against the Packers. He had 107 at the half, then broke a 24-24 deadlock with a 56-yard sprint untouched around right end midway through the third quarter.
As for his passing, his completion percentage was not otherworldly at 17 of 31, but some of his throws were Rodgers-esque, including a 12-yard touchdown laser to Michael Crabtree, who had two scores and 119 yards on nine catches.
It was the type of performance Harbaugh likely hoped for but didn't dare dream about when he made the controversial switch from Alex Smith, who took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game last season. Harbaugh knew he could win with Smith, who had completed 25 of his last 27 passes with four touchdowns before sustaining a concussion on Nov. 11 against the Rams, but in Kaepernick he saw the potential for a more dynamic offense.
Even in his wildest fantasy he probably didn't see a unit that would put up 579 total yards, including a franchise-best 323 rushing. But that's what happens when you match a gifted athlete with supreme self confidence with a mad-scientist strategist like offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who began setting his plan in motion at the end of the regular season.
Instead of running the "pistol" offense that Kaepernick used in college -- it calls for the quarterback to line up five yards behind center, with a back directly behind him, then run the read-option out of the formation -- Roman opted to put it away and show other things for which San Francisco's playoff opponent would have to prepare.
It would be foolish to say he caught the Packers off guard with the formation, but it's a strong possibility that Green Bay did not stress defending it with the same intensity it might have if Kaepernick had had a big running game against the Cardinals in the season finale.
"If you noticed, we're definitely the type of people to hold our ace card under our leg and wait for the right time to pull it out," Roman said with a sly smile Saturday night."Green Bay is a great team and we have respect for them, but it was a run-and-pass game plan tonight. It was pretty balanced. We were able to hit some big plays and guys were dialed in."
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers made a strategic mistake in the opening half by repeatedly blitzing Kaepernick and leaving his defensive backs in man coverage. San Francisco's receivers would then run upfield, forcing the defenders to run with their backs to Kaepernick, who consistently found uncluttered running lanes.
Roman guesstimated that the 49ers ran the "pistol" on just under 50 percent of their offensive snaps. Sometimes Kaepernick got free around the ends, and other times he found openings up the middle. The Packers had to be so concerned with his running in the second half that halfback Frank Gore gained 73 of his 119 yards rushing in the final one-plus quarters -- or, more specifically, after Kaepernick went 56 yards for a 31-24 lead the Niners would not relinquish.
"It was just another big game against another great quarterback where he showed up and played well," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "He's making people believers, I'll tell you that."
That wasn't the case on his first possession, when his second pass attempt was picked off by Sam Shields and returned 52 yards for a touchdown. But Kaepernick possesses an athletic arrogance that allows him to believe in himself even when others doubt him -- or particularly when others doubt him.
He responded to the turnover by leading the 49ers on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that concluded with his 20-yard run to tie the score.
"Every time there's been an interception that he's thrown, or a safety or turnover, he's responded with a scoring drive," Harbaugh said."That's rare, a rare quality."
After Green Bay regained the lead on an 18-yard run by DuJuan Harris, Kaepernick converted a fumbled punt by the Packers into a 12-yard touchdown strike to Crabtree. He followed that with a 20-yard toss to Crabtree for a 21-14 lead, as the teams went back and forth while staying within a touchdown of each other, until Kaepernick triggered 21 straight San Francisco points with his long run.
Kaepernick was quick to praise his line, backs and receivers, who all played a role in his success. But the key for any quarterback is taking advantage of his opportunities, and Kaepernick did that on Saturday, just as he has consistently done since moving into the starting lineup.
"It's been amazing," Kaepernick said."I couldn't ask for anything more."
Nor could his head coach, who is looking smarter by the game.