Certainly, there was more to the 49ers’ victory over the Patriots Sunday night than Colin Kaepernick.
There was a defense that shut down Tom Brady’s offense for the first 2½ quarters, the dramatic kickoff return of LaMichael James in the fourth quarter, Michael Crabtree’s big receiving night and the way the entire team came together when it counted to pull out a 41-34 victory over what had been the hottest team in the NFL.
But in the wake of the victory that clinched a playoff spot for the 10-3-1 49ers, the national media is now acknowledging that head coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go with Kaepernick over veteran Alex Smith has been bold and brilliant.
Though no one could for certain say that Smith wouldn’t have performed well against New England, the way Kaepernick played early and late – his strong, accurate passes and ability to move – gives the Niners a different dimension.
Nobody is calling Kaepernick a “game manager.” Instead, there are headlines like this, over Doug Farrar’s Shutdown Corner blog on Yahoo! Sports Monday: “With Colin Kaepernick, 49ers can now outscore anybody.”
Farrar noted that with Smith, the 49ers could expect few mistakes, good management and a quarterback who could maintain and protect a lead, but they “couldn’t expect a heavy diet of explosive plays.”
Now, writes Farrar: “When (Kaepernick) is on, he makes the 49ers nearly impossible to beat.”
Peter King of Sports Illustrated also is now a believer, after initially writing that Harbaugh had made a mistake switching to Kaepernick at midseason when Smith was healthy again after recovering from a concussion.
“Anyone (me included) who thought it was a mistake to bench Alex Smith has to look at Kaepernick’s fastball and his 202 rushing yards in five starts and his surprising early accuracy (65.6 percent) and know Harbaugh knew what he was doing.”
Columnist Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle concurs. With Kaepernick, the 49ers are a much more dangerous team offensively, he wrote.
“Kaepernick and the 49ers offense chewed up huge chunks of the clock, made big plays and snapped the Patriots’ winning streak at seven games,” wrote Ostler. “At some point, people are going to have to concede that Harbaugh was something other than impulsive and emotional when he opted to go with Kaepernick over Smith.”
In Sunday night’s victory, Kaepernick completed 14-of-25 throws for 216 yards, four TDs and one interception. He had TD passes of 24, 34, 27 and 38 yards, and also had a 19-yard run.
After the game, the Patriots acknowledged that Kaepernick played like a seasoned, experienced and talented quarterback. Even when the Patriots came back from a 31-3 deficit to the tie the game, they said, Kaepernick kept his cool.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Kaepernick has shown poise throughout his five starts (in which he is 4-1).
“Nothing seems to rattle him. He’s been able to play his game,” he told reporters.
Of course, it’s no surprise to Harbaugh, who obviously took a big risk in benching a sure thing (Smith) for an unproven second-year player.
After the win, Harbaugh said he was impressed with how Kaepernick played against a good team in hostile weather conditions.
“Another over-100 passer rating in a real tough environment,” Harbaugh told the media. “There was rain the entire game, but he did a nice job powering the ball through the elements and through the defense at times. Didn’t make every play, but that’s a good football team.”
And now, with Kaepernick at quarterback, the 49ers have shown they are just as good as, if not better than, any team in the NFL, including the Patriots.
The Niners' won't have to wait long for their next big challenge, however: a date in Seattle Sunday night against the Seahawks.