The 49ers defeated the New Orleans Saints 31-21 on Sunday to effectively end the NFC West race and cement their status as favorites for an NFC playoff bye. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick played well in place of Alex Smith, but Harbaugh probably could have won this game playing quarterback if he had the same defensive help that Kaepernick did.
Consider: The 49ers' defense scored 14 points on their own with interceptions returned for touchdowns. They sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees five times and hit him all day. Of the Saints' first 12 drives, just three went more than 15 yards. The Saints' second half started with an interception, a touchdown, a three-and-out, then two very short drives that culminated with turnovers on downs.
Justin Smith had a monster game. Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks both made game-changing plays. The Saints' offense was playing as well as any group in the NFL, but the 49ers made them look ordinary. One of the Saints' scores came on a 12-yard drive.
With all of that out of the way, Kaepernick showed why he got the call over Smith. He had four passes over 20 yards; the 49ers' offense has broken off far more big plays per game under Kaepernick. He ran for a touchdown. He made one poor decision on an interception, but he otherwise was great at avoiding pressure. The Saints got a lot of heat on Kaepernick, and he handled it well. He threw for 231 yards on just 25 passes.
"The Super Bowl? Yeah, we plan on being back here," Whitner replied.
The quarterback controversy isn't going away. The great 49ers' defense isn't either. No team in the NFL looks more dangerous.Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.