The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just ask the 49ers.
One year ago, the Niners needed a quarterback making his first NFL playoff start to stand toe-to-toe against an elite, Super Bowl-winning QB in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Now, the scenario is playing itself out once again.
While the opponent is different, and the name on the back of the jersey for San Francisco’s QB will say Kaepernick instead of Smith, what was true last season remains true today.
If the 49ers have any chance of returning to the NFC Championship Game for a second consecutive season, it falls to a quarterback with no postseason experience.
I’ve been a proponent of the switch to Colin Kaepernick from the start. He’s got a stronger arm, he is athletically superior to Alex Smith and has been equally as smart with the football.
What he now is going to be asked to do is win a game. That’s something he hasn’t always been asked to do in his short time as the starter, thanks to a smash-mouth running game and stout defense.
The Green Bay Packers, who are 4-1 all time against the 49ers in the postseason, will put points on the board Saturday. When the 49ers went up to Lambeau Field and controlled the pace in a 30-22 season-opening win, the Packers managed just two scoring drives and two drives of more than 39 yards. Their third TD came on a punt return touchdown.
Having seen the way the 49ers’ defense has played in the past few games, it’s almost unfathomable to think the Packers will be held in check again.
Green Bay has its full arsenal of receiving weapons healthy. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has the motivation to stick it to his childhood-favorite team, which passed him over to draft Alex Smith in 2005.
It will be up to Kaepernick to answer the call. He must be accurate, extend drives with his feet and not turn the ball over. An interception here, a fumble there will be disastrous.
One of the hurdles he will have to clear is the 49ers’ tendency in the Jim Harbaugh era to struggle with teams the second time around.
Last season, San Francisco beat the New York Giants in the regular season before falling in the playoffs. This season, the Niners went 2-0-1 in their first clashes against the NFC West. The rematches? 1-2.
The past two seasons, the 49ers are 3-4, including the playoffs, when facing teams for a second time in the same season. The Niners have as many losses (22-4-1) in their other 27 games combined.
Whether it’s the physical nature of the 49ers or maybe just eating too much sourdough bread in The City, teams seem to struggle with San Francisco in the initial battle, but adjust in Round 2.
Establishing the run. Justin Smith’s health. Stopping Rodgers. All are key elements to Saturday’s game.
But everything becomes moot if the 49ers don’t get superb play out of Kaepernick, who holds the fate of San Francisco’s run at a sixth Super Bowl in his hands.
Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @dkruse16.