Colin Kaepernick shines, but playoffs will settle 49ers QB debate once and for all

Elise Amendola/APSan Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) runs past fans as he leaves the field after defeating the New England Patriots 41-34 on Sunday.

If you like offensive football, you’re probably in Colin Kaepernick’s corner. Prefer to play it safe? Alex Smith is your man.

The 49ers’ 41-34 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday is an ink blot test for the Kaepernick-Smith quarterback controversy: you’re going to see what you want to see. While the win reaffirmed the 49ers’ status as a Super Bowl front-runner, this debate won’t be completely resolved until the ball is snapped in January.

For Kaepernick supporters, the game was a picture-perfect demonstration of why he should be the starter. The 49ers out-gunned the NFL’s most prolific offense, they handed Tom Brady his first home loss in December in almost 10 years and Kaepernick showed he can make some clutch throws with the game on the line.

By now, we all know what Kaepernick brings to the offense and he proved it again, again and again on Sunday. He opened the game with three straight completions for gains of 10 or more yards and then connected with Randy Moss in the end zone on his fifth pass for a 24-yard touchtown.

And it was the 49ers’ offense that looked like the league’s highest-scoring machine when it put together a three-play, 80-yard drive over 1:32 in the second quarter. On that drive, the Niners showed a quick-strike capability that was completely lacking when Smith was running the offense.

But this game didn’t need to be quite so close. Smith fans will point to his 20-6 record as a starter under Harbaugh and how he limited the 49ers offense to 10 turnovers last season, tying the 2010 Patriots for fewest since the 1970 merger.

Again, Kaepernick had a few questionable game management moments in this contest. He fumbled four snaps, recovered three, but the one he lost on a fourth-and-1 play killed a drive deep in New England territory when the 49ers carried all of the momentum.

Kaepernick also showed his inexperience when he didn’t pick up the backside safety on an end-zone interception. And like last week, coach Jim Harbaugh had to burn two second-half timeouts because Kaepernick couldn’t get the play off in time.

These mistakes coupled with Delanie Walker’s fumble and David Akers’ 39-yard field goal shank, kept the Patriots in the game and it almost cost the 49ers a crucial win in the fourth quarter.

Of course, Kaepernick backers will argue that the 49ers wouldn’t have defeated the Patriots’ high-octane attack with Smith calling the signals. Despite Kaepernick’s growing pains, it was his explosiveness that enabled the 49ers win a shootout against a team that’s offense refuses to be contained.

But Smith supporters will say that the 49ers were able to escape these gaffes, in part, because the Patriots feature a defense that had allowed 275.5 yards a game through the air (29th) prior to Sunday’s game. It’s a secondary that could make the Raiders offense look dynamic (if the defense could get off the field).

Kaepernick will face a bigger test next Sunday in Seattle and you can assure that any turnovers in the Emerald City will be costly against Pete Carroll’s defense. But even if the Seattle Seahawks remind Kaepernick of his youth, this debate will still matter of preference until everything’s on the line.

Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at gacklereport.blogspot.com. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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