- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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What it means: The 49ers will play in the NFC Championship Game for a second consecutive season, and they’ll do it with one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL. Colin Kaepernick’s dominant performance against the Packers will put the Seattle-Atlanta winner on notice heading into the upcoming week. It also will extinguish any embers remaining from the debate over whether coach Jim Harbaugh was right in switching quarterbacks during the season. And with Justin Smith appearing healthy after suffering a triceps injury, the 49ers’ defense appears whole for the first time in weeks.
What I liked: Kaepernick bounced back quickly and decisively from the pick-six he threw on the 49ers’ opening possession. The second-year quarterback finished the first half with two touchdown passes, a 20-yard touchdown run and 11 carries for 107 yards. Kaepernick was the best player on the field for most of the game. That was one reason the 49ers converted seven of 10 chances on third down in the first half, up from converting five of 28 chances in two playoff games last season. They finished the game with 579 yards.
Receiver Michael Crabtree, second to Wes Welker in yards after the catch by ESPN’s charting, continued his surge with Kaepernick at quarterback. His two first-half touchdown receptions helped the 49ers take a 24-21 lead through two quarters. Crabtree finished with nine receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns. He is clearly the team's go-to target in the passing game. Tight end Vernon Davis, a nonfactor in the receiving game lately, drew a penalty for interference before making a 44-yard reception, a welcome sign for the 49ers.
The San Francisco defense was back to its old ways, getting enough pressure without blitzing, particularly as the game progressed. The sack numbers were not there for San Francisco, but it's not like Aaron Rodgers was comfortable in the pocket, either. The 49ers kept the Packers' big plays to an acceptable level given how dangerous Rodgers can be. Rodgers averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt with two touchdowns, only one of them meaningful.
What I didn’t like: The pick-six Kaepernick threw early in the game gave the Packers a huge break, keeping the score closer than it should have been given how thoroughly the 49ers were dominating time of possession. That was about all there was not to like.
Back in action: Smith’s triceps injury threatened to declaw the 49ers’ defense. The Pro Bowl defensive end started the game, stayed on the field across all situations and played at a high level without obviously favoring his injured arm. All's well for the 49ers on defense when Smith is available and playing at this level.
Gutting it out: Niners left tackle Joe Staley appeared to suffer an arm injury early in the game. He was obviously in pain. Staley fought through the injury and fared well against Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who had won their individual matchup with 2.5 sacks back in Week 1. Kaepernick didn't have to worry about Matthews chasing him down. Of course, Kaepernick's mobility gave Matthews more to think about in this game relative to the Week 1 game featuring Alex Smith at quarterback. That helped out Staley and the other linemen.
What’s next: The 49ers face the Seattle-Atlanta winner in the NFC Championship Game. They would play the Seahawks at Candlestick Park. They would play the Falcons in the Georgia Dome.