San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick runs for yardage during Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. / Wm.Glasheen/Gannett Wisconsin Media
The Green Bay Packers finally prevented Colin Kaepernick from dominating. But he beat them anyway.
The San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback didn’t light up the Packers with staggering statistics, like he did in defeating them in the playoffs last season and the opener this year.
But with playoff advancement on the line Sunday in the below-zero cold at Lambeau Field on Sunday evening, Kaepernick passed and scrambled his way to 10 points on the 49ers’ final two possessions. That included converting two huge third-down conversions that set up Phil Dawson’s 33-yard field goal as time expired that muted the crowd at Lambeau and gave the 49ers a 23-20 win in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
“When crunch time came,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said, “this guy (Kaepernick) came out, he was focused, and made the plays for his team, whether it was running the ball or breaking the pocket and finding the open man. He did it at crucial times in the game, and that’s why they won today. He was a true champion today.”
The 49ers (13-4) thus advance to the divisional round of the playoffs next Sunday at Carolina, while the Packers’ season ends at 8-8-1 at their hands for the second straight year.
Despite that .500 record, the Packers took this fourth straight defeat to San Francisco in the last two seasons especially hard. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers back from a broken collarbone, this team thought it had a chance to make a storybook run after a regular-season finish that included a comeback win from a 23-point deficit in Dallas and last-minute win over Chicago last week for the NFC North Division title.
“I think a lot of us felt,” Rodgers said, “that the way things had gone the last four or five weeks, there was something special about this year and this might be everything aligning right for us to make a run. So, very disappointing. Personally, it’s frustrating not to play your best game. Tough conditions. But defense holds them to 23 points, we should win that game.”
The Packers’ season is finished even though they did their best job yet on Kaepernick, the 26-year-old who beat them with his legs (181 yards rushing) in the playoffs last season and with his arm (412 yards pass, 129.4 rating) in the opener this year.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers scrapped the failed bull-and-mirror rush plan from the opener, which contained Kaepernick in the pocket but put minimal pressure on him that day, and instead played a more conventional game plan. The Packers rushed Kaepernick normally, mixed in their share of blitzes, and saw some of the uneven play that had plagued Kaepernick during the regular season. His 75.3 passer rating and 53.3 completion percentage (16-for-30) were hardly killers.
“First game (this season) we didn’t rush at all and the guy lit us up in the passing game because he has so much time,” Williams said. “We’re talking about a guy who’s physically gifted, who can run. He’s already going to create more time, so why are you going to give it to him? We took a different approach, just played it out. Really thought we played well. Thought we were going to get the game. But at the end of the day those guys are playmakers too.”
With the game on the line, Kaepernick still was able to deliver. He did it twice in the fourth quarter, first leading a 67-yard touchdown drive that put the 49ers ahead 20-17 with 10:31 to play. That’s when it became clear the 49ers’ best play probably was Kaepernick scrambling. He converted a third-and-four against the Packers’ dime personnel by dropping back, then fleeing the pocket to his left and outrunning the Packers’ dime personnel for a 24-yard gain, to the Packers’ 33. On the next play, Kaepernick threw a back-shoulder strike to 250-pound tight end Vernon Davis down the seam for a 33-yard touchdown and the lead.
Then after Rodgers answered with the game-tying field goal drive, Kaepernick on the final drive twice converted third downs with his team outside of field-goal range. On the first, a third-and-10 from his own 31, he started to scramble left but then threw across his body and on the run to receiver Michael Crabtree for a 17-yard gain. And then on third-and-eight from the Packers’ 35, Kaepernick got blitzing cornerback Jarrett Bush to bite on a pump fake. That allowed Kaepernick to escape around the left edge, and he outran everyone for an 11-yard gain that gave the 49ers a first down and the chance to run down the clock and kick the winning field goal.
“We were in an empty pressure call,” coach Mike McCarthy said of that last third down, “and it's the right call and he gets out to his left. Obviously, a big play in the game to continue that drive. You're looking for a potential sack or the ball coming out on time there. We did not get it done as far as keeping the quarterback in the pocket.”
Said Bush: “When I looked at the replay, it was a slant backside and when you see the quarterback getting ready to throw, get your hands up, try and knock it down. Possibly tip it up for somebody to pick it off. He pulled it down and made a plays with his legs. That’s one of his strengths.”
The Packers surely had their chances. On the 49ers’ final drive, for instance, nickel cornerback Micah Hyde had a shot an interception deep in 49ers territory when he read receiver Anquan Boldin’s out route. Kaepernick didn’t see him, and Hyde made a leaping attempt but the ball skipped off his hands.
The Packers also pounded the ball on the ground against the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense – whirling and bulldozing Eddie Lacy gained 81 hard yards on 21 carries, and backup James Starks sliced his way to 29 yards on five runs of his own.
But the Packers failed to get the ball in the end zone on their final drive from first and goal at the 9. Though Lacy kept finding a way to pick up a few yards on every touch, McCarthy lined up receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield on first down and gained one yard on a Cobb run left. Rodgers had to throw the ball away on second down and scrambled for only two yards on third down, so the Packers kicked the game-tying field goal rather instead of scoring the touchdown that could have put them up four.
“These opportunities are pretty special,” Rodgers said, “and you’ve got to make the most of them. It’s nine years for me now, blessed to play that long, and would love to play another nine if possible. But this is an opportunity we let slip through our fingers.”