(Sports Network) - The San Francisco 49ers looked like Super Bowl contenderswith their Week 1 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Who would have thought they would have such a different look heading intotheir first championship game since capping the 1994 campaign with a victoryover the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. That win saw Steve Young guidethe 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl win, successfully carrying the torch fromHall of Famer Joe Montana.
Heck, the 49ers don't even mirror the team last season that narrowly lost tothe New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
It was Alex Smith who guided the Niners to the brink of the Super Bowl lastseason and to the 30-22 triumph over the Packers in Week 1, throwing a pair oftouchdown passes while completing 20-of-26 pass attempts.
It was a sign of things to come under Smith, who played it safe and efficientunder center this season. He completed 70 percent of his passes with 13touchdown passes to five interceptions prior to suffering a concussion versusthe St. Louis Rams on Nov. 11, going 6-2 in the eight games he finished.
In stepped Colin Kaepernick, who helped the Niners hold on for a tie in thatdivisional meeting with the Rams.
He also held on to the starting job, ultimately replacing Smith under centereven when the former No. 1 returned to health following his head injury.
And so the 49ers' offense took on a new look, going from a unit that thrivedon not making mistakes while a stifling defense wore out opposing teams to onethat could rip off a big play at any moment thanks to Kaepernick'swillingness to take more chances.
And not just with his arm. In his seven starts, which produced a 5-2 mark,Kaepernick threw for more than 250 yards just once, but kept defenses on theirheels due to his ability to make plays with his legs. He ran for 415 yards on63 carries in the regular season, adding five rushing touchdowns to the 10 hecompleted to receivers.
"Colin's just a very, very intense competitor," said offensive coordinatorGreg Roman. "And we saw that even when he wasn't the 'starter.' He's veryfocused. He's got the ability to draw some really intense focus. And that'ssomething I love in a quarterback."
Never were the former second-round pick's wheels on display more than arematch with the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, when herushed for a pair of touchdowns and set an NFL single-game record (regularseason or playoffs) with 181 yards in just his eight career start.
His first rushing score came on a 20-yard scamper one drive after he had aninterception returned 52 yards for a score, while his quarterback club-record56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter started a 21-0 run that helpedvault San Francisco to a 45-31 win.
"What impresses me is that he is a young guy, who started half of the season,"running back Frank Gore said of his quarterback. "When things go wrong hestays calm. Defenses just don't know what they're going to get from him. Hecan run, throw, block. He can do whatever."
In all, the Niners set a new single-game postseason franchise record versusthe Packers with 579 yards of offense, 323 of that coming on the ground.
And so the gamble made by 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, one that could haveblown up and perhaps destroyed the team from the inside out, instead went assmooth as could have been hoped. Not only did Kaepernick succeed, makingHarbaugh look like a genius, but Smith has been the perfect support system,praising Kaepernick and not complaining about the raw deal he got.
"It means a lot. I think it really shows his character and the kind of man heis," Kaepernick said of Smith's role. "He's helped me through everything, fromWeek 1 till now."
Credit to Harbaugh, who made his bed with Kaepernick knowing that a slump bythe young quarterback could send a lot of negative vibes his way.
"We did what we thought was best for the team. We did what we thought wouldgive us the best chance to win games. That's my personality," said the coach.
Added Kaepernick, "I think both of us are very competitive. We want to dowhatever it takes to win, so that is where the emotion and the excitementcomes from."
The magic, though, looked to be running out the following week in SanFrancisco's second straight NFC Championship Game appearance, this timeagainst the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. The club found itself down 17-0 justsix seconds into the second quarter and its feared defense was doing little toshut down the Atlanta passing game.
But, a new face in the backfield, rookie LaMichael James got the 49ers on theboard with a 15-yard TD run and Kaepernick began hitting wide receiver MichaelCrabtree and tight end Vernon Davis with completion after completion,including a four-yard scoring strike to Davis, to keep things moving.
The five-catch, 106-yard performance by Davis was a nice sight for Niners fansas the former Pro Bowler had largely become a non-factor since Kaepernick tookover.
Gore carried the load in the second half versus the Falcons, scoring a pair oftouchdowns in a 28-24 rally made possible after the defense shut out theFalcons in the second half.
That was the defense that had helped the 49ers to a second straight NFC Westtitle by finishing second in the regular season in scoring defense (17.1 PPG)and third in total defense, giving up just 294.4 yards per game.
San Francisco entered the season with two of the top linebackers in all offootball -- Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman -- but it was second-year pass-run specialist Aldon Smith who grab a bulk of the spotlight with his assaulton quarterbacks and the Niners' record books.
Following a 14-sack rookie season, Smith opened his campaign with a sackversus the Packers and was a constant force all season. As teams tried toavoid the massive arms of Willis and the coverage of Dashon Goldson, DonteWhitner, Tarell Brown and company, Smith made quarterbacks pay for holding theball.
The 2011 first-round pick notched 15 of his club single-season record 19 1/2sacks over a seven-game span from Oct. 18-Dec. 9 and seemed to have MichaelStrahan's single-season record in his sights before going without a sack overhis last three regular season games.
"Not surprised at all," Bowman said of the success his fellow linebacker hashad. "He was able to show us what he can do his first year. So, I was excitedabout it, actually, and glad to see him come out on top."
And on a defense defined by high-motor players -- see Willis and defensivelineman Justin Smith -- Aldon Smith saved perhaps his best game for thebiggest spotlight: "Monday Night Football."
In a game that also happened to be Kaepernick's first career start on Nov. 19versus the Chicago Bears, Smith was all over the field and set a "Monday NightFootball" record with 5 1/2 sacks.
"Aldon has had a tremendous year for us and a tremendous two years for ourfootball team," said Harbaugh. "The players and coaches have voted Aldon ourmost valuable player for this past year. I think that speaks volumes to thekind of impact that he has on our team."
Though Smith has also been held without a sack in San Francisco's two playoffgames, he remains a key part of a defense that will look to outshine aBaltimore Ravens team that has forged its own defensive identity over theyears.
Not that the 49ers are intimidated.
"(We are) physical and tough. It's hard to break us. We're going to fight tothe end. We have a great team," said Gore.
That opinion could become fact on Sunday.