In what may have been the perfect ending to a heartfelt story, Jim Harbaugh grabbed Colin Kaepernick on the sideline and hugged him tightly. When Harbaugh walked into the San Francisco 49ers’ locker room, he gave his players a fiery speech, he said he was proud and told them there was still work to be done if they wanted to reach the pinnacle on football’s biggest stage.
If the definition of happiness is to rejoice with his players, as his players sprayed champagne and partied endlessly, then an exuberant celebration better describes Harbaugh’s character. The reason Harbaugh has become one of the finest coaches if not in the history of the franchise is because he led San Francisco to its ultimate goal, its first Super Bowl trip in 18 years and its sixth appearance overall. You can almost sense that the Niners are craving success and a championship. You can almost feel it, and visualize that San Francisco is coveted and is longing to taste glory.
They danced and then they laughed Sunday afternoon, after surviving on fourth-and-4 late in the fourth quarter and after securing a spot in Super Bowl XLVII, a moment that players and the coaching staff relishes, before booking those hotel reservations and calling a travel agent.
49ers 28, Falcons 24.
The flight home, now that they can board the team plane embracing an extraordinary victory, will be euphoric and pleasant after punching a ticket to New Orleans, where the Super Bowl will take place two weeks from now. For much of the season, there has been that rousing feeling of promise and sureness, and believe it or not, the Niners validated an amazing run. The focus is now on the Super Bowl, as the 49ers will await the winner between Baltimore and New England. This time last year, San Francisco was eliminated from the playoffs following a loss to the New York Giants, and it wasn’t led by Kaepernick, who has proven that he is capable of flourishing as a franchise quarterback — well on his way to claiming a place among 49ers quarterbacks.
He became a sensation. He’s the kind of player every coach wants for his team, and Kaepernick is surely in the right place under Harbaugh who took a risk by trusting in him and making him the starting quarterback. The person who was most capable of changing the personality, since Alex Smith was out with a concussion, was Kaepernick amazingly so. It was weird at first, but the more and more he exposed his strengths and very few weaknesses, Kaepernick was named the starter. It didn’t matter whether Smith was playing well in prior weeks. What mattered the most, which was clear then, was that Kaepernick gave the 49ers the best chance to win.
Far as anybody can tell, he was more efficient and consistent than Smith — he can throw the ball downfield with accuracy and elite arm strength. When Harbaugh replaced Smith, seeing something in Kaepernick that nobody else did, he never looked back, he never once contemplated turning back to Smith. It was a gamble to put the ball in Kaepernick’s hands, but obviously it was a tough and wise decision. Look at the 49ers, a Super Bowl favorite by many, especially when Kaepernick was handed the ball to lead the best team in the NFC, one that’s a win away from excellence.
And at this point, while people believe in him, while people are raving about his prosperity and rapid growth at the most important position in football, it’s time to recognize his mid-season emergence. Impressed by his performance, Harbaugh decided to stay with Kaepernick, and after tonight’s game, no one was happier than Kaepernick, an adopted child whose dream finally came true and whose presence has been the difference for San Francisco. He’s more than just a kid, he’s a quarterback, following the footsteps of Joe Montana and Steve Young, two legends who took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. He’s mobile, smart, good-natured and down-to-earth. He’s a duel-threat, versatile and explosive.
A legend was suddenly born and a tale was written, a glowing narrative about Kaepernick and the 49ers’ decisive victory, with him leading the way. It’s plausible that the 49ers can win the Super Bowl, and go out on top two weeks from now, and raise the Lombardi Trophy in front of thousands inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It makes perfect sense, having a quarterback who is not shaky, not unreliable and not feeble when it matters the most. Perhaps Kaepernick is a testament to the 49ers’ incredible run to the Super Bowl, still in pursuit of a celebration on Bourbon Street in a couple of weeks and, until then, he can continue his dominance and alter the landscape.
So far, he’s been nothing but unstoppable and impressive and began where he left off last week. Before this game, he had a record-setting performance in a 45-31 divisional playoff victory over Green Bay, rushing for 181 yards on 16 carries — a postseason record for a quarterback — and finished with two rushing and two passing touchdowns. It looks like his performances were never a fluke, and again, Kaepernick duplicated another well-rounded showpiece on the road in which he completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards, with a touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 127.7. The 49ers had to come back from 17 down to beat the Falcons, the biggest comeback in NFC Championship game history.
He is, they say, the freak of nature and center Jonathan Goodwin couldn’t believe he developed as fast as he did, settling in quickly and making an immediate impact. If Kaepernick wins the Super Bowl in two weeks, well, then maybe he’s an instant hero for a team that likely would have been eliminated from the playoffs a long time ago. Kaepernick is what Harbaugh hoped for all along, and so he risked much of his credibility with a move that could have doomed the 49ers. Against the Falcons defense, Kaepernick had Atlanta linebackers guessing the whole time, making every defender think he would run when instead he made some beautiful throws.
And therefore, he only ran for 21 yards — and fittingly, he’s a quarterback who plays the read-option well and who scrambles out of the pocket and makes plays with his feet. You can’t deny or sugarcoat that he has a cannon for an arm, a positive attitude and the smarts to make the right decisions. You just can’t deny it. If anyone knew it, Harbaugh was the guy, and gave him that chance to show what he had. At first, the 49ers were trailing and were getting shoved and pushed around inside the Georgia Dome with a roaring crowd rupturing our eardrums. But as Kaepernick has done so well since stepping into a major role, he was calm and at ease, which propelled him to play exceptionally well.
This was, arguably, the greatest night of his young career, and it’s no shocker that he engineered a slew of game-changing drives to pull off a comeback. It was not only that they won, although a victory was necessary to punch a ticket to the Super Bowl, but it was also a game that Kaepernick proved to be resilient and played with his back against the wall. All of his life, as a kid growing up, he waited for this moment and it happened. The Falcons 17-0 first-half lead disappeared, and Kaepernick just stayed unruffled. His team rallied from a large deficit and then he and running back Frank Gore knifed their way through Atlanta’s defense in the second quarter.
Once that happened, it was over for quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons, when in the early goings, he had an aerial spectacle and delivered downfield passes to Julio Jones. By the end of the night, Ryan was seen leaving the Falcons looker room with his arm in a sling after suffering a separated left shoulder on a second-down play. The crowd went completely silent when the 49ers cut the deficit to 17-14 late in the second quarter, well before Ryan hooked up with Tony Gonzalez for a 10-yard touchdown pass to extend Atlanta’s lead to 24-14 at halftime. The 49ers then went on an 82-yard scoring drive that eventually led to a 5-yard touchdown run by Gore, who scored a pair of touchdowns, including the game-clinching touchdown with 8:23 left to play.
So now this is Kaepernick’s team, and wouldn’t you know he’s on his way to a Super Bowl in his first year as a starter. And guess what? He validates his trust, so that’s why Harbaugh made the switch, before even knowing that Kaepernick could seemingly lead the way and play with heart and ferocity.
It’s clear that the 49ers are better with Kaepernick. No question whatsoever.