SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Colin Kaepernick stood in a cramped corner of the 49ers’ locker room smiling and chatting with Alex Smith late Saturday night when a stranger interrupted the two quarterbacks.
“Wow, great game,” said former franchise quarterback John Brodie, shaking Kaepernick’s hand and patting him on the back. “Nice to meet you.”
After a record-setting playoff debut that sent San Francisco to the NFC championship game for the second straight season, Kaepernick needs no more introductions.
The second-year pro out of Nevada squashed all the questions and uncertainty about Jim Harbaugh’s late-season decision to supplant Smith as the starter in a 45-31 rout of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick is quickly becoming a household name.
Riding his strong legs and right arm, the 49ers (12-4-1) are back where they were a year ago and seemingly more dangerous and daring than when the eventual champion New York Giants eliminated them last January. San Francisco will play at Atlanta (14-3) on Jan. 20 after the Falcons outlasted Seattle 30-28 on Sunday.
“All the credit goes to him,” said rookie running back LaMichael James, another part of the dynamic read-option run game. “When he’s making that read, he knows when to give it. He knows when to pull it. He’s taking off. He’s faster than most people on the defense. He’s doing everything for us right now.”
In the air and on the ground, Kaepernick confirmed Harbaugh’s much-debated move more than anybody could have imagined in 60 minutes of playoff football.
The tattoo-tattered quarterback from nearby Turlock overcame an early interception returned for a touchdown and ran for scores of 20 and 56 yards, topping the rushing mark of 119 yards set by Michael Vick in 2005 when Atlanta beat St. Louis. He also threw TD passes of 12 and 20 yards to go-to target Michael Crabtree, who finished with nine receptions and 119 yards in the NFC divisional matchup.
San Francisco racked up 579 total yards with 323 on the ground, scoring its third-most points in the franchise’s storied playoff history. Kaepernick also joined Jay Cutler in 2011 and Otto Graham in both 1954 and 1955 as the only players with two rushing and two passing touchdowns in a playoff game.
“It’s been amazing and I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Kaepernick said.
“Guys playing football. He’s making it happen,” Crabtree said. “With his feet, with his arm, he’s just out there making plays. He’s a playmaker.”
That’s something San Francisco sorely lacked last January.
Throw out the grind-it-out game that propelled the 49ers as far as a 20-17 overtime loss to the Giants a year ago. With a strong arm and quick-burst ability out of the pocket, Kaepernickhas given the offense an added dimension — and maybe some moxie, too — that was missing in the championship game.
Crabtree’s one catch for 3 yards accounted for all of the production from San Francisco wide receivers against New York. While Kyle Williams bore most of the blame for his two fumbled punts, Smith and the offense struggled to move the ball and put the pressure on the defense most of the night.
Maybe no more.
All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis credited Kaepernick and Co. for bailing out the defense against the Packers, especially in the first half, when Kaepernick had 11 carries for 107 yards rushing to give the 49ers a 24-21 lead. The unproven quarterback simply ran away from Green Bay in the second half, and the reigning MVP couldn’t keep up.
“I joke with him all the time, I say, ‘You’ve got to be one of the biggest and strongest quarterbacks I’ve seen,’” Willis said. “He’s fast. It’s just one thing when you see a guy get behind a guy and they try to run and the guy already has a step on him. But to see a guy come across the field at an angle and he eats up the angle, to us, that’s fast. That guy’s moving.”
Ramping up plays out of the Pistol formation he ran at Nevada, Kaepernick’s size and speed overwhelmed the Packers in ways he hadn’t in his first seven starts since taking over.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman admitted he 49ers had been saving some of those schemes —and Kaepernick’s legs — for the playoff push. Kaepernick, the first college football player with three seasons of 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, surely surprised the opposition with all those read-option runs, including a 56-yarder TD keeper in the third quarter — the longest by a quarterback in franchise history — that eclipsed Vick’s mark.
“I think they thought I had it,” James said. “That’s what I told him. I know once he gets past the second level, nobody’s going to touch him.”
Kaepernick’s performance was hardly perfect.
He threw an interception returned for a touchdown by Sam Shields on the fourth play of the game, had a taunting penalty for throwing the ball down in the face of Packers defenders after getting tackled in the second quarter and often had problems getting the offense out of the huddle quickly.
As San Francisco also knows maybe more than any other playoff team, sustaining success is not easy.
Five previous times this season the 49ers have won two in a row, and all five times they have failed to win the next game, including a 24-24 tie against St. Louis in Week 10. If they want a trip to New Orleans, they’ll have to find a way to put together something they haven’t all season: a winning streak.
“It feels like we’re in the same place,” Crabtree said. “Winning that game last year, we’re in the same place. It’s just what we do the next game. It’s all about the next game.”