Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick will make his first playoff start Saturday. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
As the 49ers prepare to play the Packers Saturday night, there are several questions to be answered, such as:
Who will be the Niners kicker, David Akers or Billy Cundiff? And will whichever one wins the kicking duel this week actually be able to make a pressure kick in the NFC divisional-round game at Candlestick Park?
Will defensive line standout Justin Smith be able to play effectively with a damaged triceps?
Will the 49ers be able to run on the Packers defense the same way they did in the opening game of the season, a 30-22 San Francisco victory?
And then there is the X Factor: Colin Kaepernick.
As Victor Contreras of the Sacramento Bee wrote this week, we know Alex Smith can beat Green Bay, as he did in September. But can Kaepernick?
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh, of course, is a believer. He wouldn’t have switched starting quarterbacks in the middle of the season if he didn’t believe Kaepernick had special qualities to take the 49ers deeper in the postseason than Smith.
In his second NFL season and eight games into his role as No. 1 QB since taking over for Smith in the Nov. 11 tie with the Rams, Kaepernick has been impressive. His quick feet have given the Niners an extra element for defenses to worry about, and his ability to throw the deep pass has given the offense more quick-strike capability.
In leading the 49ers to a 5-2 record since becoming the starter in a 32-7 win over the Bears on “Monday Night Football” on Nov. 19, Kaepernick has thrown 10 TD passes, run for two more and has a quarterback rating of 98.3.
This week, Harbaugh said Kaepernick is locked in to the team’s game planning and preparation and will be ready for the Packers.
“His understanding of it (the game plan) this early in the week is savant-like,” Harbaugh told Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group Monday.
One NFL observer, former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, now an analyst for ESPN, believes Kaepernick could indeed by the extra element that puts the 49ers over the top this postseason.
“Kaepernick is the reason I like the San Francisco 49ers to win it all,” Jaworski wrote this week. “Between his arm strength and his foot speed, there is nothing the Niners’ offense can’t do. They’ve got the smashmouth ground game, the quick-strike deep ball. He has shown good feel in the pocket and, like (Robert Griffin III), looks to make the pass first and doesn’t default to his legs at the first sign of pressure.
“With a little time off thanks to the first-round bye, we could see some revolutionary types of plays from Jim Harbaugh, as well.”
Another former NFL (and 49ers) quarterback, Jeff Garcia, said it will be interesting to watch how Kaepernick handles the excitement and “buzz in the air” in his first playoff game.
But he, too, believes the young quarterback could be a difference-maker.
“He’s going to have to make some plays,” Garcia told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “There are going to be a handful of plays – it might be anywhere from three to five plays that he’s going to have to make, whether it’s with his arm or with his feet.
“The thing is, he’s capable of doing those sort of things, he’s capable of making explosive plays. … so that’s the great thing he brings to the table.”
One unnamed NFL scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week that he believes Kaepernick can be the difference in the game.
“I like Kaepernick,” he told the paper. “He started out playing really well, then after three or four games people figured out who he was and what he did. So he hasn’t been as productive. Getting to this point in the year, you’re wondering if they are better suited having a veteran quarterback (Smith) in the playoffs. Did that show up late in the season?
“Kaepernick will be a big factor, and I think he will settle down.”