SAN FRANCISCO After catching an 11-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter Monday night, Vernon Davis walked up to the quarterback, put his hands together and made a low bow.
Kaepernick, after all, had freed Davis from a four-game imprisonment in which the tight end was a bit player in the 49ers' passing game.
"I felt like somebody took the handcuffs off me," said Davis, who finished with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in San Francisco's 32-7 blowout of the Chicago Bears.
The victory made everyone forget about last week's lackluster tie with St. Louis, put the 49ers (7-2-1) in second place in the NFC with six games remaining and perhaps gave the region its first compelling quarterback controversy in years.
"We'll see," coach Jim Harbaugh said when asked whether Kaepernick or Alex Smith would start Sunday in New Orleans. "I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand. And we've got two quarterbacks that have a hot hand."
Kaepernick sizzled from the start.
The second-year quarterback had done more damage with his legs than his arm this season, and the Bears expected a conservative game plan in his first NFL start.
They didn't get it.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called play-action passes on two of the first three snaps, and Kaepernick connected on both to Mario Manningham for eight yards and to Davis for 22 yards.
Touch passes were supposed to be Kaepernick's kryptonite, but he delivered several in the first half, none as nice as a 57-yarder that descended just past the head of Bears cornerback Kelvin Hayden into the arms of Kyle Williams to the Chicago 3-yard line.
One play later, Kaepernick found Davis in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown, and the 49ers had a quick 10-0 lead.
It turned out to be all they needed.
San Francisco's defense thoroughly outplayed its more celebrated even by the president of the United States Bears counterparts. The 49ers intercepted two Jason Campbell passes, sacked him six times and threw in a fourth-quarter safety to boot. They held the Bears (7-3) to 143 yards, the second-fewest any NFL team has gained this season.
The 49ers began the week thinking that Smith, who suffered a concussion against the Rams, would start. But as the week went on, his symptoms returned, and Kaepernick began to take more of the practice snaps.
Sunday night, the decision was made: Kaepernick would start.
Smith watched the game from the sideline and conferred with Kaepernick throughout. Afterward, Smith said he felt OK but that the decision to play remains in the hands of team doctors, who ruled him out for Monday.
"I feel better," Smith said. "We're kind of in the middle of it."
Smith has had several excellent games this season, turning in passer ratings of 156 or better in wins over Buffalo and Arizona.
Kaepernick's debut was nearly as good. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps most impressive of all, he didn't turn the ball over against a Bears defense that had forced at least two turnovers in every game this season.
Kaepernick also did something Smith has hesitated to do over the years take chances when there were no obvious throwing windows.
Davis had seven catches for 101 yards and no touchdowns in the four previous games combined. But he bowed to Kaepernick after the quarterback gave him a chance to make a play on the 11-yard reception.
"I was so proud of him at that moment because the ball that he threw me, it was one of those balls that you see Tom Brady throw," Davis said. " It was a tight window. Very, very tight. He took the shot. He was very confident in himself, obviously, and he made it happen."
Davis has been Smith's teammate since 2006, and he has been the quarterback's most ardent and vocal supporter throughout that span. How would he feel if Kaepernick overtook Smith for the starting job?
"It's tough," Davis said. "Alex is a genuine guy. I've been here with him since Day One, and I've always supported him. Colin is the same way very humble heart, soft-spoken. He wants to be great. I can't choose sides. I'm here to support either one of them."