The expectations at the beginning of the 2013 NFL season were sky-high for Colin Kaepernick. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback hasn’t had an easy time following up his success from the previous season, but his fantastic play as of late has the 49ers set up for another playoff run.
Sunday’s victory against the Arizona Cardinals was an example of that fantastic play, as Kaepernick had one of his best games of the season.
Here are five takeaways from that performance, as the Niners prepare for a first-round playoff matchup against the Green Bay Packers.
Kaepernick Is Ready for the Playoffs
The 49ers ranked 31st in the NFL in passing yards coming into Sunday’s game, but that doesn’t matter if Kaepernick heats up during the playoffs.
The Niners quarterback showed he’s certainly ready for playoff action, as he completed 21 of 34 passes for 306 yards and two touchdown passes. He also averaged over nine yards per pass for the second straight game and the fourth time in six games.
This shows that he is playing his best football when it matters most.
With all eyes on Rodgers, Kaepernick heads into playoffs with NFL-best 82.2 Total QBR and 4th-ranked 109.7 passer rating over last 3 games.— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) December 30, 2013
If Kaepernick can even come close to matching last year’s playoff success, which included a single-game quarterback rushing record and 100.9 passer rating in three games, the 49ers will be just fine.
He Can Carry the Offensive Load
The Cardinals had little trouble containing running back Frank Gore on Sunday, limiting him to 14 yards on 13 carries. That allowed them to stack up on pass coverage, which didn’t exactly affect Kaepernick.
The Packers, San Francisco’s first-round opponent in the playoffs, don’t provide that same defensive challenge. They rank 21st in the NFL at defending the pass and 26th against the run.
If Kaepernick can pick apart the Cardinals defense like he did in Week 17, Green Bay should be of little worry. Don’t forget what he did against the Packers in the playoffs last year: 181 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.
He Uses All His Offensive Weapons
Kaepernick connected with seven different receivers for completions on Sunday. Of course, Anquan Boldin was his main target, with his 145 receiving yards comprising nearly half of Kaepernick’s 306 passing yards.
However, Kap also got some of his other receivers involved. Quinton Patton, who had all of one catch on the year coming into Sunday’s game, caught two passes for 34 yards. Anthony Dixon had a season-high 27 receiving yards on a pair of catches.
Even left tackle Joe Staley had a 17-yard catch.
This might not seem like much, but the various gains add up. Kaepernick’s ability to hit a variety of targets instead of relying on one or two receivers—as he has been prone to do this season—will be especially valuable come playoff time.
He Can Pull Through When it Matters Most
The Cardinals tied the game at 20 with 29 seconds remaining in the game. That didn’t prove to be much of an obstacle for Kaepernick, who completed passes of 18 and 29 yards to allow Phil Dawson to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.
The 29-yard completion, which went to Patton, was perhaps the biggest play of the day.
"I liked the matchup and there was no safety on that side of the field," Kaepernick told the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) regarding the play. "I thought I would give him a chance. He has shown that he can go up and make those plays in practice. He came up with it and it was huge for us."
Drives like those are especially critical in the playoffs, when an entire season might hinge upon a team’s ability to get a quick score.
On Sunday, Kaepernick proved that he has what it takes to lead his team downfield in crunch time.
The Kaepernick-Boldin Connection Is Legit
Anquan Boldin carried the 49ers' receiving corps this season and the return of Michael Crabtree hasn’t exactly limited his offensive production.
On the contrary, Boldin produced his highest receiving-yards total since his 208-yard performance in Week 1. He caught nine passes, also his highest total since Week 1, for 149 yards and a touchdown against the Cards to give him 1,179 receiving yards on the season.
Anquan Boldin has all six of the 49ers catches for 106 yards and a TD in the first quarter— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 29, 2013
During the 49ers' six-game winning streak, Boldin has 549 receiving yards, including touchdown catches in each of the last two games.
"We would like to carry that momentum," Boldin told the Associated Press. "It felt like a playoff game. We came in here and won a tough game, so hopefully that will continue."
Boldin fell off a bit after recording six catches in the first quarter, but responded to his struggles in the second and third quarters with catches of 17 and 18 yards, respectively, during each of the 49ers’ final two drives.
With Crabtree figuring to receive the attention of teams’ top cornerbacks in the playoffs, Boldin will need to step up. His Week 17 performance showed he and Kaepernick are indeed on the same page.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.