I mentioned on Thursday that I was ready for Saturday night's 49ers/Packers playoff game to get underway already, so you can imagine that most of my day Saturday was spent working myself into a hyper ball of tension. It didn't help that just about everything I was reading and hearing from "experts" seemed to favor the Packers to win the game. Even though the 49ers had the better team and the game in their building, that seemed to matter little. How could the 49ers hold down Aaron Rodgers and his galaxy of stars. How could the 49ers win with Colin Kaepernick making his first Playoff start? The stage was set for everyone's chic picks, the Packers and Seahawks, to go on the road, kick their opponents in the nuts and then meet in an Epic NFC Championship game next Sunday.
Early on, it looked like everyone might have been right. Kaepernick came out and immediately threw an interception that Sam Shields ran back for a Touchdown. On the ensuing possession, it appeared that Kaepernick was just as antsy as I was. He was under and overthrowing his receivers, only managing a 1st down via Penalty. Kaepernick started out completing 1 of his first 5 passes, the 49ers were facing a 3rd and 10 on their own 33 yard line, and I was apoplectic. Instant disaster was staring the 49ers right in the face. Already behind, about to hand the ball back to Aaron Rodgers...Where was this game going?
In reality, throwing the early Pick-6 was the best thing that could have happened to Kaepernick and the 49ers, for multiple reasons. For one, throwing a little adversity the way of the 49ers right away gave them the opportunity to come back and set a tone that whatever Green Bay did, the 49ers would be game enough to match it. Second, between the kickoff and Kaepernick's TD, about 6 minutes of game clock, more like 25 minutes in actual time elapsed, all time in which Aaron Rodgers had to stand on the sideline, and all time in which the Green Bay defense had to spend on the field.
By time Rodgers finally took a snap, he was cold. Rodgers started equally as poorly as Kaepernick, this wasn't quite as magnified since he didn't turn the ball over, but except for a 3rd down prayer to James Jones on the Packers's second possession, he didn't do much. The Packers regained the lead one play after the Jones catch when DuJuan Harris, the Packers' Running Back du Jour, ran it in from 18 yards out, but that was pretty much the only thing of note the Packers were able to accomplish on the ground. This, in fact, was the last time the Packers held the lead the remainder of the night.
Not that it didn't require a few breaks for the 49ers, but in a game that appeared rapidly developing into a shootout, Kaepernick was just getting warmed up. By game's end, Colin Kaepernick would put forth a record-setting performance, one that displayed just how dangerous a weapon he really is, how multifaceted a talent he can be, and how right Jim Harbaugh was when he made the switch to Kaepernick mid-season.
The Packers defense, suspect all season and porous against mobile Quarterbacks, had no answer for Kaepernick. They couldn't cover receivers in zone coverage, and any time they blitzed, Kaepernick was able to escape and gain yards on the ground. Kaepernick had now been able to find his legs, settle in and proven himself more than capable of standing toe to toe with Rodgers, who answered the 49ers Touchdown with an impressive one of his own, hitting James Jones for the score on a drive aided by an idiotic roughing penalty on Dashon Goldson (Goldson was flagged for diving on a pileup late, something he probably should have known better than to do).
Tied once again with 2:33 to go in what was shaping up as a wild game, the 49ers would have been wise to score before halftime, with the Packers set to receive the kickoff after halftime. Score they did, as Kaepernick just went right back to work picking the Packers apart. A trio of scrambles went for 19, 18 and 9 yards, putting the 49ers in good enough field position for David Akers to line up for and make his only attempt of the night, a 36 yard attempt that gave the 49ers the lead, 24-21, going into the half. After his ugly start, Kaepernick had more than settled in, he was taking over the game. His 11 rushes had gone for 107 yards, which was not only enough to lead the team, it was more than the 99 Adrian Peterson had been able to muster the prior week in Green Bay. Moreover, the 49ers held an embarrassing lead in time of possession, holding the ball for nearly 2/3rds of the half.
The Packers needed to make some kind of adjustment, particularly on defense. Kaepernick and the 49ers had beaten them to the punch continually throughout the half. They had no answer for Kaepernick, and if they couldn't come up with some sort of solution, the game was going to get out of hand. Early in the 3rd Quarter, the Packers tried to give the 49ers a bit of their own medicine, forcing a 3-and-out—the only one they would get all evening—before Rodgers led a lengthy drive that culminated in a Field Goal by Mason Crosby, knotting the game once again at 24.
This would be the last moment the Packers were relevant in this game.
The Packers, in response, completely abandoned the run. Rodgers passed and passed, but couldn't sustain a drive. Their punt pinned the 49ers back at their own 7 yard line, but that only gave the 49ers an opportunity to kill the Packers more methodically. After spending most of the first 3 quarters on the field, the Packers defense was beginning to wilt. Punishing runs by Frank Gore were sandwiched around Kaepernick continuing to zip passes all over the field, one to Crabtree for 16 yards, and a deep strike to Vernon Davis that covered 44 yards and made Troy Aikman's jaw drop. Gore punched the ball in from a yard out on the first play of the 4th Quarter, giving the 49ers a firm lead at 38-24. With the Packer defense shot, the 49ers were one stop on defense from running their asses out of Candlestick Park and Discount Doublechecking them back to Green Bay. Rodgers gamely tried to lead them back, but his best opportunity—a deep pass—sailed just out of the reach of Greg Jennings, and the Packers were forced to punt away once again.
The 49ers final drive of the game further demoralized the Packers and iced the game. Pinned back at their own 7 yard line once again, the 49ers moved the ball easily, mostly on the ground, until they were faced with a 4th and 1 deep in Green Bay's territory. The Field Goal would have been the easy option, but instead, the 49ers lined up as if they were going to go for it. The thought process was to try to get Green Bay to jump offsides with a hard snap count. This rarely works, but somehow, Kaepernick managed to dupe B.J. Raji to jump, giving the 49ers a 1st down and the opportunity to run more clock. Anthony Dixon's 2-yard Touchdown finished things off, the 49ers second straight 93-yard drive, this one eating close to 8 minutes off the game clock. By time the Packers scored an academic Touchdown, there was under a minute to go and the game was no longer in doubt.
Kaepernick didn't do it alone. Kaepernick's offensive line, led by Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis (all Pro Bowl-bound) regularly picked up the Green Bay pass rush, and cleared many of the running lanes for Kaepernick to run through. Frank Gore, after a slow start, pounded the ball on the ground in the second half, contributing heavily to the Packer defense getting gassed late in the game. Gore ran for 119 yards, and they were 119 angry yards. In the season opener, Gore had beaten the Packers by running outside the tackles. Saturday, Gore just pounded the ball up the middle repeatedly, at first for short gains, but as the game progressed, the 6-7 yard gains turned into 10-15 yard gains. Michael Crabtree continued his breakout season with the kind of game that would have earned him enhanced recognition, catching 9 passes for 119 yards, most of them in traffic, many of them to convert 1st downs, and 2 for Touchdowns. But with Kaepernick's performance, Crabtree's fine game got lost in the shuffle. Not that he, or anyone else, seems to mind. The whole is what matters, and in their resounding victory, the 49ers set a team Playoff record by running up 579 yards of Offense. It's worth noting that every time they generated more than 450 yards of Offense in a Playoff game, they won the Super Bowl.
So, the Quest for Six will continue. The 49ers move on to the NFC Championship game for the 2nd year in a row. They'll be on the road in Atlanta next Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons stopped the Seahawks dead in their tracks with a heart-stopping 30-28 victory on Sunday. Though Atlanta's victory was certainly impressive, they also showed their weaknesses in blowing a 20-point lead with startling quickness in the 4th Quarter. There, but for a miraculous last-second clutch performance from Matt Ryan and Matt Bryant, the 49ers could be at home, preparing for a grudge match against a red hot and fired up Seahawk team in a game that likely would have mimicked the Championship game against the Giants last year. But Seattle has been put in their place and sent home to watch the 49ers take on the Falcons for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. This is the game they've been waiting to get to all season, and they'll have the chance to break down the door they were knocking on last year.