Better than Alex Smith? Time to aim higher. Kaepernick was better than Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers on this night -- so much so that the 49ers' second-year quarterback could qualify as the most dangerous player remaining in the NFL playoffs.
That was the takeaway from the 49ers' 45-31 thumping of the Packers in an NFC divisional-round playoff game at Candlestick Park. Kaepernick became the first player since 1960 and probably ever, I would venture, to finish a game with at least two passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, 260 yards passing and 180 yards rushing.
"He was running all over the field," Rodgers said. "He's big, strong, athletic, throws the ball well and runs the ball extremely well. We didn't really have a whole lot of answers for him."
Kaepernick has now outplayed Rodgers and New England's Tom Brady in prime-time games over the past 27 days. His two-game statistical haul from those games: six touchdown passes, two rushing touchdowns and nearly 700 combined yards rushing and passing. The 49ers put up 86 total points in those games.
Any questions? Here was one up for review in the 49ers' locker room after the game: Was Kaepernick the fastest player on the field Saturday night?
"He could be," tight end Delanie Walker, owner of a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, said from a far corner of the 49ers' locker room.
Vernon Davis, who once ran the 40 in 4.38, was seated to Walker's right and immediately perked up, rising after tying a shoe.
"Ah, I don't know about that one," he said playfully. "Hey, the guy to your right. And Delanie is fast too."
Walker laughed aloud.
"They always say it's easier when nobody sees you and you just run straight up the field," Walker said.
And that was the point Saturday night. The 49ers unleashed their full playbook upon the Packers, springing Kaepernick into the clear before Green Bay's defenders knew where the plays were heading. The result: 16 carries for 181 yards and two scores.
That was Packers linebacker Clay Matthews pirouetting out of one play, spinning like a top.
"We had a lot more Pistol formation in this game plan," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, "both handing the ball off and 'Kap' running and play action. We're pretty multi-dimensional on that formation."
Kaepernick rushed for 178 yards before contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He scrambled for 75 yards, including once for a 20-yard score. He gained another 99 yards on zone-read plays, one of which sprung him to the end zone from 56 yards away. Packers safety Charles Woodson looked like a man wearing ankle weights and a SCUBA belt as the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Kaepernick pulled away.
The 49ers' opponents often marvel at the sheer volume of running plays San Francisco shows in a game. The effect was compounded for this game because the bye week gave Harbaugh, coordinator Greg Roman and staff additional prep time.
Conventional wisdom says teams with formidable defenses should shield young quarterbacks from carrying too much of the load. But the 49ers benched Smith in favor of Kaepernick because they wanted more from their offense, not less. They made the move to get better right now.
"Everybody that was second-guessing the decision to move from Alex to him, I don't think they'll be questioning it any more," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "He's that new-style quarterback in the National Football League that can run the read option, that can pull the ball down and run it and take it the distance from anywhere on the field -- extremely strong-armed, accurate."
With Kaepernick at the controls, San Francisco converted 8 of 13 chances on third down. That was up from five conversions in 28 third-down plays over two playoff games with Smith behind center last season. Kaepernick completed 5 of 7 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown on third down. He gained another 53 yards and scored on three third-down scrambles.
Michael Crabtree, a nonfactor in last season's playoffs, had nine catches for 119 yards and two TDs.
There are other differences beyond the quarterback, of course.
Most of the 49ers' offensive line has two full seasons together, and Alex Boone has been a massive upgrade at right guard. The 49ers' situation at wide receiver is far preferable this year even though Mario Manningham is on injured reserve.
Crabtree, Randy Moss, Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Jenkins were the receivers active for this one. Crabtree, held to five receptions for 28 yards in two playoff games a year ago, finished this game with nine catches for 119 yards and two scores.
The 49ers finished with a 579-352 advantage in net yards and a 16-minute lead in time of possession.
"The bye week was huge for us," Roman said. "It's hard to put into words the X's and O's part of it, but there were some subtle differences to what we did and we felt it was appropriate."
The 49ers set a season high with 34 plays from this Pistol, and this time there weren't negative side effects for the rest of the offense. Those Pistol plays gained 6.9 yards on average. Frank Gore, whose rushing average had fallen from 5.5 per carry with Smith to 3.9 with Kaepernick, finally appeared comfortable running from the Pistol. He was quicker and more decisive through the line of scrimmage.
Gore ran 16 times from the Pistol and had 87 yards on those runs, according to ESPN game charting.
"The one thing [the option] does is makes you a little bit indecisive," Woodson said. "You want to shoot in there, but he may hold the ball and take it outside. If you go outside, he might give it to the running back to take it up the middle."
All of this should sound familiar in these parts. The 49ers' division rivals from Seattle have unleashed zone reads to great effect. Kaepernick is more dynamic than the Seahawks' Russell Wilson as a breakaway runner, but the Wilson-Marshawn Lynch combination is formidable.
If the 49ers have their way, the Seahawks will knock off the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, returning the NFC Championship Game to Candlestick Park, this time with an NFC West flair.
The Seahawks handled the 49ers 42-13 when the teams played in Week 16 at CenturyLink Field. Wilson outplayed Kaepernick, and the 49ers' defense wasn't the same without Justin Smith.
Smith and the defense were back to form against the Packers. Kaepernick made history.