The 49ers came within an overtime loss of reaching the Super Bowl last season, and they have the talent to go further this year. The questions confronting them, however, are more significant than a year ago, when they had a seasoned quarterback, a healthy defense and a kicker who was as dependable as a sunrise. None of those is the case entering Saturday's divisional round game against the Packers. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be making his first postseason start; defensive end Justin Smith, a team captain and arguably the club's most valuable player, missed the final two-plus games with a partially torn triceps but is likely to play against Green Bay, although he could be limited by the injury; and David Akers has missed nearly as many field goal attempts this season (13) as he did in the previous two years combined (14).
Kaepernick has had flashes of brilliance coupled with bouts of inconsistency since taking over as the starter in a Nov. 19 win over the Bears. Coach Jim Harbaugh made the change in part because he felt he had seen the best of Alex Smith and wasn't sure it was enough to win a title. The Nevada product is a more dynamic runner than Smith, and for all of Vikings QB Joe Webb's passing struggles against Green Bay in the wild-card round, he showed that a running quarterback can cause problems for the Pack—he tore off four runs of 10 yards or more in Green Bay. Kaepernick is a similar threat: in his last eight games he had 10 carries of at least 10 yards and 14 rushes for first downs. He's also a bigger threat in the vertical passing game than Smith (and certainly than Webb), completing 21 pass plays of at least 25 yards, 10 more than Smith had in his nine games before being benched. What's more, though Kaepernick may not bring playoff experience, he has big-game seasoning, with wins at New England and New Orleans, as well as against Chicago—in those games he had seven TD passes and one rushing score, with just two turnovers. "One of the things that stood out about Colin from the very start was the poise," says Harbaugh, "that he was able to handle situations like a guy who looks like he's been playing that position for a long time."
Justin Smith is as vital on defense. He didn't put up eye-popping numbers in 2012, but his ability to stop the run and command double teams in passing situations created opportunities for teammates—outside linebacker Aldon Smith had 19½ sacks through 13 games but had zero over the final 2½ games when Justin Smith was sidelined. Moreover, the defense has surrendered 79 points over its last 10 quarters without Justin Smith after allowing barely 14 points a game before his injury.
A recovered Justin Smith, an effective Aldon Smith and an efficient Kaepernick could reverse that trend versus the Packers—but the 49ers still need Akers to deliver. The 38-year-old was money last season, converting on 44 of 52 field goal attempts. This season he was 29 of 42 with at least one miss in six of his last eight games (inspiring the Niners to sign Billy Cundiff last week as insurance). The question now: Which Akers will the Niners get—the one who was 4 for 4 in the postseason last year, or the one who missed from 41 and 34 yards in the Eagles' 21--16 loss to the Packers two years ago in the playoffs?
When San Francisco has the ball ...
The Niners employ multiple personnel packages—12 groupings in the first 15 snaps in a 30--22 Week 1 win over Green Bay—but the offense still revolves around RB Frank Gore, with his vision, balance and knack for getting small through holes provided by a big, physical line. Though injuries have depleted the receiving corps, capable targets remain: Michael Crabtree on short and intermediate routes, Randy Moss deep, and Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker in the seams and on corner routes.
Michael Crabtree is on the hottest five-game streak of his career: 35 catches, 538 yards, four TDs. Green Bay CBs Sam Shields and Tramon Williams will have to be physical at the line to slow Crabtree, who was sixth in the NFL with 544 postreception yards and who tied for fifth with 22 chain-moving third-down catches.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Combined sacks, hits and hurries by Aldon Smith, more than any other 3--4 OLB.
Passes of 20-plus yards in the air caught by the 49ers, out of 626 NFL-wide.
CARY EDMONDSON/USA TODAY SPORTS (KAEPERNICK)
'NICK OF TIME? Harbaugh made the midseason switch to the playmaking Kaepernick in hopes of nudging the Niners to the next level.
JED JACOBSOHN (GORE)