Heading into Sunday's Green Bay-San Francisco showdown, it was fair to wonder if 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, in his first postseason appearance, could keep pace with Aaron Rodgers.
By the time the game ended, the better question was: How is anyone going to stop Kaepernick and this San Francisco offense?
En route to a 45-31 dismantling of the Packers, Kaepernick turned in one of the finest performances ever seen by an NFL quarterback, playoffs or otherwise. His 181 yards on the ground set a new record, breaking Michael Vick's single-game QB rushing mark (173). Kaepernick also became the first player in NFL history to throw for 175 yards and rush for 175 yards in the same game -- he finished with 263 through the air.
The 49ers finished with 579 total yards, including a team playoff record 323 rushing.
After Sam Shields staked Green Bay to an early 7-0 lead with a pick-6 of Kaepernick, the 49ers' offense kicked into high gear and never slowed down. In their 10 drives following that Kaepernick mistake, the 49ers scored six touchdowns and kicked one field goal, and one of the three non-scoring "drives" came at the end of the game, with the 49ers kneeling twice to run the clock out.
The performance made clear that Kaepernick is here to stay as a potential superstar in this league ... and that the 49ers may be the team to beat for the Super Bowl title.
More ups and downs from San Francisco's convincing 14-point win:
First Down: Michael Crabtree.
People talked a lot all year about Dez Bryant maturing and developing into an elite wide receiver. Well, Crabtree's right there with him.
The fourth-year pro has done a lot of growing up under Jim Harbaugh's tutelage, and he turned in a dominant performance Saturday, giving Kaepernick an extremely reliable target through the air. Crabtree finished with nine catches for 119 yards, including a pair of touchdowns that turned a 14-7 San Francisco deficit into a 21-14 lead.
As on the first of those TDs, when he gained inside position on Sam Shields and made a terrific catch over the middle, Crabtree showed the ability to use his body in traffic. When Kaepernick put the ball where he could catch it, Crabtree made it so the Packers could do nothing to defend him.
Fourth Down: Jeremy Ross.
Ross had his hand in one play -- and it was a game-changer for the Packers.
With Green Bay up 14-7 early in the second, Ross muffed a punt return inside his own 10. San Francisco recovered, setting up the first of those two Kaepernick-to-Crabtree TD passes. Up until that point in the game, the Packers had the upper hand and were doing a nice job against the San Francisco offense. But Ross' miscue turned the tide.
The Packers were using Ross back deep to keep a banged-up Randall Cobb out of harm's way. That choice backfired huge.
First Down: Joe Staley.
At one point during Saturday's first half, FOX's cameras caught Staley, the 49ers' left tackle, grimacing in obvious pain on the sideline. But despite battling a right arm injury, Staley more than held his own against Packers' pass rusher extraordinaire Clay Matthews. With Staley stymieing Matthews, the 49ers were free to explore their entire playbook.
Fourth Down: Clay Matthews.
And, a good game for an offensive tackle usually means a bad game for a key defensive player. It was Matthews in the Packers' case -- he was held to just three tackles (though he added a sack), and consistently found himself out of place when Kaepernick utilized the zone-read.
Without Matthews being able to seal the edge, the Packers had no luck trying to dictate what San Francisco could do offensively. Hence, a 45-point explosion.
First Down: James Jones.
In what may have been his final game as a Green Bay Packer, Greg Jennings had a disappointing night. He caught a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers in the game's final seconds, but Jennings also let a key 3rd-and-5 deep ball from Rodgers slip through his fingers -- for all intents and purposes, ending Green Bay's chances.
Jones stepped up in a big way this season for the Packers, as injuries ravaged their receiving corps. He enjoyed another solid game Saturday, scoring on one of his four catches and making a sensational leaping grab on a 44-yard bomb from Rodgers.
The league leader in TD receptions during the regular season, Jones might inherit the Packers' top receiving spot next season. He certainly looks ready for more.
Fourth Down: Dom Capers and the Packers' defensive game plan.
Capers drew up the Xs and Os for a Packers defense that overachieved this season -- Green Bay ranked 11th in both points and yards allowed. Still, Saturday's massive defensive letdown will not sit well with Packers fans, especially after the 2011 season ended with Capers' D allowing 37 points in a playoff loss to the Giants.
Green Bay, which faced only two option plays the entire regular season, did not appear to have a real plan for dealing with Kaepernick. Even some halftime adjustments, designed to keep the San Francisco QB in the pocket, failed miserably.
First Down: The zone-read offense.
In Capers' defense (pun intended?), even a stalwart effort might have gone to waste. The 49ers looked invincible after Kaepernick's early interception -- and that includes everyone from the QB himself to Gore to the receivers to the offensive line. Everything clicked at the right moment.
And, as if the successes of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Kaepernick had not pushed the needle toward more teams implementing zone-read offenses, the 49ers' playoff performance might just do that.
It takes the right guy to run it, of course -- even Kaepernick might have bombed given the chance last season, before he had a year to refine his passing ability. But when the QB is in charge to the extent that Kaepernick was Saturday, and he is surrounded by a talented supporting cast, there is only so much an opposing defense can do.
Fourth Down: Dumb 49ers penalties.
Sure, this is a little nitpicking just for the sake of slapping one "Fourth Down" on the 49ers. Still, San Francisco cannot expect to cruise to victories in the NFC title game and (potentially) the Super Bowl, as it did Saturday.
So, eliminating some unnecessary errors could be key. Kaepernick took a silly 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after scrambling for a first down -- he spiked the ball in celebration, part of a constant back-and-forth jawing he had with the Packers' defense. And his teammate, Dashon Goldson, was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit as he dove on a pile late to deliver a blow to DuJuan Harris. The 49ers finished with eight penalties for 86 yards on the game. That number, obviously, did not come back to haunt them in the end, but they might not be as lucky going forward.