San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree scores a second quarter touchdown against the Green Bay Packers Saturday night at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Media
SAN FRANCISCO — This was why San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made the midseason change from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.
Though the second-year pro Kaepernick made a colossal error early in the game, his combination of halfback-like running ability and legitimate NFL throwing talent was more than the Green Bay Packers could handle in the 49ers’ 45-31 win at Candlestick Park in the divisional round of the playoffs.
In back-to-back seasons, the Packers have been knocked out of the divisional round decisively — last year it was in a 37-20 loss at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
“We did not do a very good job keeping (Kaepernick) in the pocket,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He was able to get it out of the pocket for a number of big conversions there in the first half. We weren’t able to get off the field. Tried to make some adjustments in our pass-rush lanes and so forth and did not accomplish that. I was concerned at halftime frankly with the time of possession the 49ers had over us. We obviously didn’t handle the quarterback runs from out of the pocket.”
The loss ends the Packers’ season at 12-6 and ends their hopes of winning the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Put a lot into this. Now you stand here and realize that’s the last time this group is going to be together. It will be a different team next year, additions, subtractions. Spent a lot of time with those guys, care about them. Care about this a lot, then to go out there and play like that is disappointing.”
The game revolved around Kaepernick’s scrambling and zone-option runs — he set an NFL playoffs record for rushing yards by a quarterback (181) and led an offense that demolished the Packers’ defense with 579 yards in total offense, including 323 yards rushing. The threat of his scrambling forced the Packers’ pass rushers to hold their rush lanes more than going for sacks, which gave him more time when he wanted to throw. And times when the Packers abandoned those lanes or blitzed, he usually gashed them for several key gains.
Nothing defensive coordinator Dom Capers tried worked, including occasionally using a linebacker to spy Kaepernick on dropbacks. So the 49ers were able to dominate the ball — halfback Frank Gore had 119 yards on 23 carries — and hold a decisive edge in time of possesion (38 minutes, 1 second to the Packers’ 21:59) that kept Rodgers and the Packers’ offense off the field.
“We had a couple different combinations of schemes,” McCarthy said. “We obviously didn’t get that done. When a team has over 300 yards rushing and the quarterback has 100 plus, we obviously did not get it done.”
Kaepernick occasionally looked like the inexperienced quarterback he is, especially on the game’s first series, when he spotted the Packers a 7-0 lead by making a bad throw into coverage. After scrambling to his left, he threw to receiver Randy Moss but hit cornerback Sam Shields in the chest, and Shields returned the interception 52 yards for the touchdown.
However, with Kaepernick at the helm, the 49ers had more than enough punch to overcome his mistake. He finished with an 11.3-yard average and two touchdowns on 16 rushes, plus a 91.2 passer rating that included no big mistakes after his first-drive interception. More importantly, he outplayed his counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, who threw a first-half interception and finished with a 91.5 rating that was inflated by a garbage-time touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter on a night when the Packers needed him to be at or near his best.
“(Kaepernick) was running all over the field,” Rodgers said. “Big, strong, athletic. Throws the ball well, runs the ball extremely well. We didn’t have a whole lot of answers for him.”
Kaepernick made several big plays with his legs, starting with a 17-yard scramble for a touchdown on a third-and-8 that tied the game at 7. He also showed he could break big plays on the read option, most notably in the second half, when fullback Bruce Miller blocked outside linebacker Erik Walden, and Kaepernick broke outside the contain and ran 56 yards untouched for the touchdown that put the 49ers ahead for good, 31-24, with 7:07 left in the third quarter.
But Kaepernick also showed the throwing ability that Minnesota’s running quarterback, Joe Webb, lacked last week in the Packers wild-card playoff win. Late in the third quarter, with the Packers behind by only a touchdown, Kaepernick saw his best playmaker on offense, tight end Vernon Davis, run past linebacker A.J. Hawk, and the quarterback hit him in stride for a 44-yard completion that put the 49ers on the Packers’ 15.
Two Gore runs later — a 13-yarder and a 2-yarder — and San Francisco opened a 38-24 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Kaepernick’s scrambling and running were huge factors in helping the 49ers to a 24-21 lead and putting up 313 yards in total offense in the first half alone. Kaepernick ran for 107 of those yards on 11 carries, with some coming on scrambles and some off read options and a quarterback draw.
Aside from Kaepernick’s 17-yard touchdown, he had several other key runs is a first half in which he rushed for 107 yards on 11 carries and led the 49ers to 313 yards total. Among them was a 15-yard scramble that converted a third-and-9 deep in Packers territory and set up the touchdown that put the 49ers ahead 21-14; and on a hurry-up drive for the go-ahead field goal in the last play of the first half, an 18-yard scramble against a six-man rush that was opened by halfback LaMichael James’ cut block on linebacker Clay Matthews and converted a third-and-7.
The Packers also in effect gave back the Shields touchdown when return man Jeremy Ross, who replaced Randall Cobb on kickoffs last week then on punts also this week, muffed the catch on a punt that the 49ers backup safety C.J. Spillman recovered at the Packers’ 20. That set up a third-and-12 touchdown pass to receiver Michael Crabtree, who caught a short crossing pattern against zone coverage in which cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Charles Woodson appeared to vacate the middle to quickly, which opened the way for Crabtree to turn up the middle for the field for the touchdown that tied the game at 14-14 early in the second quarter.
The Packers stayed in the game in the first half but did almost nothing in the second half, which allowed the 49ers to pull away.
Rodgers in the first half hit the kind of big-strike play they haven’t hit as often this season. It came on a third-and-5 late in the first quarter, when Rodgers took a deep shot to receiver James Jones. Jones had slipped behind the double coverage of safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Chris Culliver and made a bobbling catch for a 44-yard gain to the 49ers’ 18. On the next play, halfback DuJuan Harris burst through a big hole in the middle for an 18-yard touchdown run that put the Packers ahead 14-7 with 29 seconds left in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, the Packers tied the game at 21 with the help of a 15-yard penalty against Goldson for unnecessary roughness for his late helmet to helmet hit on Harris, who was down. That put the Packers at the 49ers’ 31, and two plays later Rodgers hit receiver James Jones on a seam route for the score. On that play, the Packers went with their base offense (two running backs, two receivers and a tight end), which caused the 49ers to counter with their base 3-4 defense. But then Harris split wide to one side and fullback John Kuhn split wide to the other, which spread out the 49ers and opened the middle of the field for Jones to split the safeties in zone coverage.
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