Tie score. Five minutes to play. Playoffs lives on the line. Three degrees and dropping.
Colin Kaepernick didn’t freeze, and he didn’t flinch.
Instead, the quarterback, one of 10 49ers who played the frigid game with bare arms, converted one third-and-long situation with his arm and another with his feet on a final drive that ended with Phil Dawson’s game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired.
The 23-20 victory sends the 49ers to Charlotte, N.C., to face the Panthers, who beat the 49ers 10-9 in San Francisco in Week 10, and adds to Kaepernick’s reputation as the biggest Packers slayer of them all.
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A year ago, he set an NFL rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards against the Packers. On Sunday, he rushed for 98 yards – the fifth-most gained by a quarterback in the postseason – to go with 227 passing yards.
His rushing total included an 11-yard, around-the-edge scamper with just more than a minute left that gave the 49ers a first down and put them in Dawson’s range.
“I mean he was just clutch,” coach Jim Harbaugh said, using a word he repeated throughout his postgame news conference. “Colin Kaepernick – I think we can all agree is a clutch performer. This is not his first time doing this.”
One day earlier, Harbaugh watched Kaepernick get ready for a walk-through practice in 31-degree temperature and suggested the quarterback at least wear a long-sleve shirt under his uniform. Harbaugh made the same recommendation today, but Kaepernick, whose family moved from Wisconsin to Turlock when he was 4 years old, said he’d rather go without sleeves.
Why do that today when he wore sleeves and even a glove on his throwing hand in cold games at the University of Nevada?
“At Nevada, we didn’t have jackets on the sideline, beanies or heaters,” Kaepernick said. “So it’s a little bit different.”
A sleeveless quarterback also sent the message that the team from California, which had not won a playoff game in Green Bay, wasn’t going to be intimidated by the cold.
Indeed, the offense and defense got off to hot starts. Kaepernick led two long drives in the first quarter, but both bogged down near the goal line, and the 49ers settled for short field goals.
The defense, meanwhile, forced three consecutive three-and-out series from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who totaled 6 yards in the first quarter.
Then Kaepernick made one of two bad throws. Cornerback Tramon Williams’ interception on a deep throw to Vernon Davis early in the second quarter seemed to wake the slumbering Packers, and Rodgers responded with a 14-play touchdown drive that erased San Francisco’s quick start.
But Kaepernick more than matched the one-time league MVP from that point forth. After the Packers took a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, he made perhaps his best throw of the game.
Kaepernick was looking for opportunities when Davis was isolated against Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk. Kaepernick finally got it at the Green Bay 28-yard line, and his pass down the middle cut through the wind and arrived to Davis just before the advancing safety to give the 49ers the lead again, 20-17.
The Packers answered with a field goal to tie the score and set up the final drive.
Kaepernick’s third pass of the possession was nearly a disaster, a short attempt from the San Francisco 31 to Anquan Boldin that cornerback Micah Hyde almost intercepted and could have run back for a touchdown. But on the next play, third and 10, Kaepernick kept his composure and hit Michael Crabtree over the middle for 17 yards.
While Boldin was his main target in last week’s last-second win at Arizona, Kaepernick eyed Crabtree on Sunday, and the receiver finished with eight catches for 125 yards to lead all receivers.
“If my life depended on it and somebody had to catch a ball, I’d enlist Michael Crabtree to do it,” Harbaugh said.
The 49ers converted two more third downs on the drive and ran another nine plays before Dawson, who won last week’s game with a 40-yard kick as time expired, calmly hit another, silencing 77,525 fans as the ball slid inside the right upright.
The 49ers now have to travel cross country to play the Panthers on Sunday at 10 a.m. But after dealing with a deep freeze in Green Bay, a trip to Carolina doesn’t seem so undesirable.
Said Kaepernick: “We owe ’em.”