The Takeaway: Clutch in the Cold

It looked shaky at times, but the 49ers hit the right notes at the right times to escape frigid Lambeau Field with a 23-20 win over the Green Bay Packers to advance to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

As polarizing as Colin Kaepernick's play has been this season, his final drive in the fourth quarter to seal the win Sunday night might have been the signature moment of his two-year stint as starter for the 49ers.

Kaepernick led a 14-play march down the field, with the game tied and just one timeout to win and advance over the Packers. Phil Dawson's game-winning field goal kept the season alive with a re-match against the Panthers next week. Another second-consecutive run to the Super Bowl remains alive.

He went without sleeves, in a minus 13-degree wind chill. It was playoff theater at an awfully high level. And it came from a kid that watched Brett Favre do the same thing on the same field while growing up in Wisconsin as a Packers' fan.

For head coach Jim Harbaugh, formerly "Captain Comeback," it wasn't difficult to identify the clutch performance from his quarterback.

"Somebody that answers in the clutch time of the game, on the important down," he said. "On the time when it matters most, that's what I would call clutch.

"He's Kaepernick tough, and i think it's pretty awesome."

Indeed, if Kaepernick had been looking for a signature moment, that was it. And it came using both his arm and his legs against a banged Packers' defense that's still searching for answers. He finished with 325 yards (227 yards passing, 98 rushing) and was the game's leading rusher.

Much like the regular-season finale against the Cardinals, the 49ers got off to a dominating start, but two red-zone possessions sputtered and resulted in field goals instead of touchdowns. A potential 14-0 lead was just 6, keeping Aaron Rodgers and his team in the game.

The 49ers out-gained the Packers 110-8 on their first two drives but had just a one-score lead to show for it. San Francisco's defense didn't allow Rodgers a first down until their fourth drive that followed Tramon Williams' interception at Green Bay's 13-yard line.

Much like the Cardinals game, the home team tied it late at 20, leaving San Francisco just over 5 minutes to close it out with their season-extending drive.

With the brutal temperatures and Eddie Lacy punishing San Francisco's defense in the second half, avoiding overtime was paramount.

The biggest play of the final drive came on a 3rd-and-8 hovering just outside of field goal range. Kaepernick beat the blitz and picked up 11 yards with a sprint down the left sideline, giving him 98 rushing yards on the night.

"The last one, every gap is filled, we're in an empty pressure call, and it's the right call, and he gets out to his left," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's a big play in the game to continue that're looking at a potential sack or the ball coming out on time."

It allowed the 49ers to keep pounding Green Bay's defense with Frank Gore, before ultimately getting into chip-shot range for Dawson.

The sealing play came on the team's next third down when Gore followed fullback Will Tukuafu for a rugged first down on 3rd-and-3. Moving the chains then meant the 49ers would take the final kick without giving Rodgers another chance.

"I owe that kick to the whole offense," Dawson said after hitting a game-winner for second-straight week. "To put a drive like that under any conditions is big time, but especially today with all the factors working against us."

Winning the Cold

Coming in, the weather dominated the headlines. Would the west coast team traveling to the White North acclimate? Are the physical 49ers built to play in the freezer against Rodgers, who came in 12-4 in those temperatures?

Kaepernick came out without sleeves for warmups and still elected not to put them on when he went back to the locker room prior to kick off.

"I've played in cold weather games before and I feel like it's more mental than anything," Kaepernick said. His time playing in Reno at the University of Nevada had him prepped. Growing up locally in Wisconsin didn't hurt much either.

"It didn't seem to affect the guys when they were running around and playing, just like he we had foreseen," Jim Harbaugh said, after scoffing at such questions numerous times during the week.

Alex Boone, who pined about the impact of the cold earlier in the week came with a different angle following the game.

"I absolutely love it. I wish that I had gone without the sleeves. I didn't have to think about it at all because it wasn't really that cold," said Boone.

"It's almost like a high school game, especially with how close the fans are. It's like being back in Friday Night lights. It's fun."

The game-time temperature was five 5 degrees, marking the seventh-coldest game at Lambeau Field since 1959 and the fourth-coldest postseason game at the stadium.

Knowing they can play without hitch in icy Green Bay could help the 49ers if they find themselves back in the Super Bowl that will be played outdoors in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

A Rematch Ahead

Next Sunday's game in the Divisional Round will feature a rematch of Nov. 10's tilt the Panthers won 10-9. The 49ers were a much different team at that point. They lost Vernon Davis (concussion) and Garrett Celek (hamstring) early, preventing them from running any two tight-end sets. Another notable absence from that game was Michael Crabtree, who finished Sunday's game with eight receptions for a game-high 125 yards against the Packers.

The Panthers earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC after winning 11 of their last 12 games following a 1-3 start. Armed with the league's second ranked defense, they are similar to the 49ers in many ways including having a dynamic, dual-threat quarterbacks and elite front sevens.

Carolina enters the postseason in a similar spot as San Francisco's 2011 team. Both teams were the second seed in the conference and jumped from mediocre to contender almost over night. While the 49ers had Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the Panthers have Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

At that point, virtually all of San Francisco's roster lacked playoff experience. The same can be said for these Panthers. But having played in two-straight conference title games including the Super Bowl last year, the 49ers will head cross country with a girth of experience compared to their counterparts, including the momentum of a win at Lambeau Field in January.


Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.

Get updates from NinersDigest by following here and become a subscriber to receive access to premium content and analysis.

Niners Digest Top Stories