As the 49ers headed toward the playoffs, head coach Jim Harbaugh was totally confident in his team.
“I love our team,” he said this past week. “I love our fight. They compete always. They play this game like they really want to win every time they play, and it’s very important to them that they not let anything slip.”
Sunday, in pulling out a 23-20 playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field, the 49ers lived up to Harbaugh’s words.
When the Packers took an early fourth-quarter lead, withstood a 49ers score and then tied the game at 20-20 with 5:25 remaining, San Francisco didn’t let a victory slip away.
Instead, the 49ers never let the Packers touch the ball again, marching from their own 20 to the Green Bay 15 on a 13-play drive that ate up all but two seconds on the clock.
Then, kicker Phil Dawson came on to kick a 33-yard field goal to give the fifth-seeded 49ers the first-round playoff victory and a date against the No. 2 seed Panthers this coming weekend in Carolina.
It marked the fourth straight victory for the 49ers over the Packers under Harbaugh, and this one had a familiar theme: the playmaking ability of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Though temperatures for the game hovered just above zero, the Niners’ second-year starter wasn’t fazed by the conditions. After beating the Packers in last year’s playoffs with his legs and in this season’s season-opener with his arm, Kaepernick used both to help the 49ers pull out the win, passing for 227 yards and running for 98.
Kaepernick began the game-winning drive with an 11-yard pass to Michael Crabtree. After Green Bay’s Micah Hyde nearly intercepted a short pass to Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick came right back to connect with Crabtree again for 17 yards. An 11-yard pass to running back Frank Gore took the Niners to the Packers’ 40 at the 2-minute warning.
Then, on third-and-8, Kaepernick broke around left end for an 11-yard pickup and a first down at the Green Bay 27 to get Dawson within makeable field-goal range. After four Gore runs up the middle took the ball to the Packers’ 15-yard line, Dawson then made the game-winning kick.
Crabtree had a big game, catching eight passes for 125 yards, while Boldin had three catches for 38. Tight end Vernon Davis was held mostly in check until the fourth quarter, when he caught a 28-yard pass from Kaepernick to give San Francisco a 20-17 lead after the Packers had scored to take a 17-13 lead.
Time and again over the second half of Sunday’s game at Lambeau, Kaepernick and his teammates were able to make something happen when they needed to. As Harbaugh had said, “They always compete.”
After the victory, he certainly felt that way about his quarterback.
“He’s Kaepernick tough,” Harbaugh told reporters.
Now, Kaepernick and Co. will need to show that toughness again if they want to advance past Carolina, a team that beat them earlier this season at Candlestick Park, 10-9.