For Colin Kaepernick to remain the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, he must earn the job as the team hits the road to face the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks in the coming weeks.
Consecutive road games against winning teams, both to be played Sunday night on national TV.
Escaping the upcoming two-game stretch unscathed serves as a daunting task for any NFL signal-caller, let alone a second-year pro with just four career starts under his belt. That's without mentioning New England has won its last 20 home games in December, and Seattle is 6-0 at CenturyLink Field in 2012.
The Niners are holding on to a one and a half-game division lead over the surging Seahawks with three weeks remaining in the regular season. Now is not the time Jim Harbaugh planned to be feeling out which QB gives his team the best opportunity to win a Super Bowl—Kaepernick or Alex Smith.
But that's essentially what he's doing.
With a 9-3-1 record and an NFC West crown no sure thing, it's just the reality of the situation. Should the Niners lose to New England and the 'Hawks beat the Bills in Week 15, sole possession of first place in the division will be at stake the following week.
I'm not claiming that the 49ers can't win with Kaepernick behind center. The 25-year-old gunslinger has proven he can succeed at this level. He is, in fact, 3-1 since replacing Alex Smith as the starter.
But we would be foolish to ignore the fact that SF is about to embark on its toughest two-game stretch of the season with a relatively unproven quarterback. One who, despite showing flashes of brilliance, has also exposed concerns of whether or not he is mentally prepared to lead this team to victory in a hostile environment.
That was in San Francisco against a Miami team that entered the game with a 5-7 record. A stark difference from taking on the Patriots at their place in the month of December.
Of course, that's not all on Kaepernick. The players have to line up in the right spots before he can run the play. Regardless, it is the responsibility of the quarterback to get them lined up correctly and in a timely manner.
Draining too much of the play clock is one downside of consistently changing offensive personnel in an attempt to keep the defense off-balance. We've seen such difficulties with Smith as well, but not nearly as bad.
Also, with the season-ending injuries to running back Kendall Hunter and wide receiver Kyle Williams and suspension of RB Brandon Jacobs, depth across the offense is wearing thin.
Given the way the Patriots have been steamrolling opponents, New England is undoubtedly the toughest opponent the 49ers have faced away from home in 2012. The Patriots just slaughtered the AFC's top team (record-wise), the Houston Texans, 42-14 on Monday night.
SF has a dominant defense and ground game that gives it a good head start at beating any opponent. But Kaepernick will be forced to beat the Patriots with his arm, legs and mind—all at once.
For the most part, I trust Kaep's arm and do not doubt his legs in the least, but what about his mind? Can he make the correct decisions, both pre-snap and during the play, to lead this team to its biggest victory (or victories) thus far in the season?
That is what he'll have to prove to Harbaugh in consecutive games on Sunday Night Football for all the nation to see.
Regardless of what the score may suggest, SF's Week 14 win over the Dolphins wasn't a convincing victory. Before Kaep's 50-yard TD run late in the fourth, the Niners had converted just one of their nine third-down attempts and totaled less than 300 yards of offense.
In a loss to St. Louis the week before, the 49ers endured a costly mid-game lull that saw the offense gain just 35 yards over a span of six drives. Mental mistakes from both Kaepernick and the coaching staff cost the 49ers dearly toward the end of the game as well.
Similar errors came about in previous losses to the Vikings and Giants when Smith was under center, too, so don't think I'm stating that the blame should fall squarely on the shoulders of Kaepernick for struggling on occasion. Or Harbaugh's, for putting him in an unfamiliar position at such a critical time.
Although a mid-season QB change is one of the riskiest moves a coach can make, I do trust that Harbaugh's decisions are made with the best interest of the team in mind and nothing more.
But if Kaep falters on the road in games the 49ers simply cannot afford to lose, the team may find itself looking at a road game to start the postseason. Should SF fail to win one of its final three games, there is a chance (albeit very, very slim) the Niners could miss the playoffs altogether.
That's quite a drop from where they sit now, which is alone in the NFC's No. 2 seed and primed for a second-straight first-round bye.
If Harbaugh can't trust his new starting quarterback on the road in December, how will he be able to do so in January?