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Colin Kaepernick's competitive fire melts Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- He strode out of the Lambeau Field tunnel and into the bitter chill, his bare arms exposed for Titletown and all the football-watching world to see.

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Yes, this was a statement, and yes, this was a metaphor, and you'd best believe Colin Kaepernick was channeling every ounce of defiance and competitive fire in his being as he flashed his skin before and during Sunday's frigid wild-card playoff game against an all-too-familiar foe.

And then, after ignoring his coach's directive to put on some sleeves, outdueling Aaron Rodgers and flexing in front of 77,525 crestfallen fans in temperatures that would approach zero degrees Fahrenheit, Kaepernick displayed the soft-spoken swagger that makes him one of the NFL's hottest young stars.

"Hey, I'm not gonna let anybody talk bad about my tats, or make me cover 'em up," Kaepernick said, smiling as he stood at his locker shortly after leading the San Francisco 49ers to a 23-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers. "To come out here and then not show them? No way. It's not that cold. It's all mental."

It's mental, and it's a mentality, and for the Packers, it's a remake of the same horror flick, and the plot is getting mighty tired. This time, despite the brilliance of Rodgers -- who, in his second game back from a broken collarbone, twice staked Green Bay to go-ahead touchdowns and set up Mason Crosby's tying field goal with 5:06 remaining -- Kaepernick stayed preternaturally poised.

Kaepernick also put together a game-winning drive that would have made Hall of Fame predecessors Joe Montana and Steve Young proud. And when Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal went through the uprights as time expired, ending the Pack's season and sending the Niners to Charlotte for next Sunday's divisional-round matchup with the Carolina Panthers, it was as though Kaepernick's excellence had been permanently inked onto Titletown's collective psyche.

For a 26-year-old quarterback who has made just 27 NFL starts, including four in the postseason, Kaepernick sure has done a lot to alienate the residents of his native state. Three times in the last year he has starred in victories over the Pack: two season-ending, postseason triumphs and one tone-setting, season-opening tour de force.

Never mind that Kaepernick, for much of the rest of 2013, leveled off statistically and at times seemed to be regressing in the wake of his supernova-like debut half-season as an NFL starter.

None of that matters now. The bottom line is that while Rodgers ranks with future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning among the most phenomenal passers on the planet, it's Kaepernick -- the third-year pro who finished 5 tantalizing yards short of a Super Bowl victory last February -- who left polar Lambeau with a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in New Jersey four Sundays from now.

"Unbelievable, right?" Niners right guard Alex Boone said of Kaepernick, who gained 325 yards via air and land. "He's a great player, a great leader, and he's so tough. Especially in this weather, in somebody else's stadium, against a team that wants to beat you so badly -- it's hard to get going, and he made it happen.

"Watching (Rodgers), it's hard sometimes. I mean, it's painful to watch him, because he's so good ... He's out there making perfect throws, escaping from everything, making huge plays. But when they got the (tying) field goal at the end, we were saying, 'As long as we have the ball, we'll be fine.' "

The Niners were, because Kaepernick produced a pair of sublime third-down conversions that put his multifaceted skill set on full display -- much to the dismay of a gritty Packers team that, as it had all season, refused to wilt in the face of injuries and adversity.

With 4:09 remaining and the Niners facing a third-and-10 at their own 31, Kaepernick took a shotgun snap and felt immediate pocket pressure, stepping up to avoid the Green Bay rush. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree (eight catches, 125 yards), who missed much of the 2013 season while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, had been Kaepernick's first read on the play, and the quarterback never gave up on his favorite target, hitting him with a crisp, 17-yard pass that confounded cornerback Jarrett Bush.

"The play is designed for Crab, but Colin got flushed," backup quarterback Colt McCoy said. "We're coached that when you're flushed, go back to (read) No. 1, which is what he did. Huge play."

Five plays later, on third-and-8 from the Green Bay 38 with 1:13 remaining, Kaepernick took another shotgun snap and stared down another potent Packers pass rush. Displaying patience and impeccable timing, Kaepernick waited until the blitzing Bush surrendered the edge before darting to his left, picking up the 11 yards that would give San Francisco control of this game.

Dagger.

In a rivalry once dominated by the Packers but now tilted firmly in the 49ers' favor, Kaepernick both strong-armed (16 of 30, 227 yards, one touchdown pass, one interception) and outraced (seven carries, 98 yards) the competition.

While not as fantastically prolific as he was in the Niners' 45-31 divisional-round victory over the Packers last January at Candlestick Park (when his gaudy stats included 181 rushing yards -- the most ever for a quarterback in any NFL game, regular or postseason) or in September's 34-28 triumph over Green Bay at the 'Stick (when he had a career-best 412 passing yards and three TDs), Kaepernick was the master of the Pack's domain.

His bravado was not subtle. Though he doesn't display the gratuitous showmanship of, say, professional wrestler Ric Flair, whose surprise appearance at the Niners' Saturday night team meeting in their Appleton hotel had the players roaring with excitement, Kaepernick -- like so many great quarterbacks -- has a pronounced sense of self and is decidedly comfortable in his own skin.

In this case, as he suggested at his locker after the game, he's a young man comfortable in tattoo-covered skin. That might not endear him to some members of an older, stodgier generation of football fans -- and, infamously, one silly sports columnist who riled the quarterback a year ago by suggesting he looked "like he just got paroled" -- and to some it might belie Kaepernick's intelligent, workmanlike approach to his craft.

If so, he's not overly stressed about the misperceptions. And Sunday, he damn sure wasn't going to be rattled by the weather, which was five degrees at kickoff and dropped as the contest continued, with a wind-chill warning in effect as the fans streamed out into the bleak Wisconsin night.

"We talked about 'no sleeves' during the week," veteran receiver Anquan Boldin said of Kaepernick, who might have unintentionally paid homage to the late, great ex-Niners offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick. "It's a mind-over-matter type thing. He's a special guy. No panic, ever. I don't think at any point our confidence wavered."

Regarding the lack of sleeves, Niners Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley said, "It wasn't the smartest thing. He just wanted to show off all the tats."

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Similarly unenthused was Niners coach Jim Harbaugh -- who, incidentally, rocked his trademark khakis on the sideline. "I went with the Dickies khakis," an unusually giddy Harbaugh explained in an otherwise empty locker room, just before heading to the team bus. "Had to do it, even with all the layers underneath."

Boone said of Kaepernick: "He didn't even wear sleeves today. I feel like a (wuss). But hey, that's Kap -- it's who he is."

He's also a resilient competitor who doesn't get unnerved when things go wrong. For example, after the Niners dominated early, outgaining the Packers 118-6 in the first quarter and taking a 6-0 lead, Kaepernick squandered a chance to pile on and produced the game's lone turnover: On second-and-7 from the Green Bay 29 with 13:23 left in the second quarter, Kaepernick threw deep to his right for tight end Vernon Davis, but ended up connecting with Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams, who seems to save his best performances for the playoffs.

After Williams cut back across the field for a 17-yard return, Kaepernick was the one who stopped the defender's progress, throwing his helmet into a hit that, if nothing else, served as an outlet for releasing his frustration. Williams' pick seemed to wake up the Packers, who'd failed to record a single first down to that point.

With Packers coach Mike McCarthy smartly adjusting to the Niners' pressure by employing a no-huddle attack -- and Rodgers executing it to perfection, completing a 14-play, 70-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson -- Green Bay took a 7-6 lead and got its shivering fans back into the game.

On the visitors' sideline, Kaepernick was simply chill.

"He makes a mistake, and he never gets stressed out," Boone said. "He threw the interception and said, 'Hey, listen -- I tried to force it. You know what? I'll make it up to you.' And he made it right."

On the third play of the Niners' next drive, Kaepernick raced up to the middle and sprinted 42 yards to the Green Bay 13, leaving a diving Davon House in his wake. Two plays later, Frank Gore's 10-yard touchdown run put San Francisco back on top, 13-7.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, with the Packers trailing 13-10 and facing a fourth-and-2 from the San Francisco 30, Rodgers made a play perhaps even more tremendous than his instant-classic game-winner in Chicago that clinched a playoff berth the previous Sunday: With the pocket collapsing and two Niners defenders (tackle Ray McDonald and linebacker Ahmad Brooks) on the verge of engulfing him, Rodgers somehow escaped, rolled to his right and lofted a gorgeous ball to Randall Cobb for a 26-yard completion.

It's a play very, very few quarterbacks in football history could have made -- though one of them, in fairness, was Rodgers' future Hall of Fame predecessor and onetime nemesis, a fellow named Brett Favre.

"He's so good," Aldon Smith, the Niners' star outside linebacker, said of Rodgers, the Super Bowl XLV and 2011 regular-season MVP. "It frustrates you, because you get so close to him, and not only does he escape, but he makes a big play."

Two plays later, as fullback John Kuhn scored to give Green Bay a 17-13 lead, the football world -- Kaepernick included -- was still abuzz with Rodgers' epic escape act.

"Aaron played ridiculous," Kaepernick said later.

Harbaugh said: "Yes. And Kap was ridiculous, too. Yes he was."

As he had in the first half, Kaepernick quickly erased the Niners' deficit, needing just five plays -- including a 24-yard run around left end and a gutsy 28-yard scoring pass to Davis, just out of Morgan Burnett's reach -- to make it 20-17.

Rodgers, as everyone assumed he would, drove the Pack back into scoring position. But as the Niners' defense was in the process of stopping the Packers' next drive 6 yards short of a touchdown, Kaepernick and his offensive teammates betrayed no hint of nervousness.

"For real, when they were tying the game, everybody was chill," Staley said. "Guys said, 'It's fun to win in the end, man.' After we got the ball back, it was just another drive."

Perhaps -- but I'm guessing history will show it was the drive that cemented Kaepernick as a bona fide star.

Now Kaepernick, who admits that he's driven by last February's Super Bowl disappointment and likely always will be -- "Of course I am," he said -- will try to keep his foot on the gas against the Panthers' stifling defense.

Having played what was probably the worst game of his career in a 10-9 defeat to Carolina in November, Kaepernick won't have much trouble summoning the inner fire that has made him such a luminous star at such an early stage.

"He leads, and we follow," left guard Mike Iupati said. "He's a special cat, man."

You might say Kaepernick wears his emotion on his sleeve -- except, as we now know, he has no use for sleeves, no matter how harsh the elements or how daunting the circumstances.

Speaking of which ...

As we slot the remaining eight title contenders in a query-laced fit of awesomeness, you'll notice that Kaepernick's team has risen almost to the top, just shy of the rival led by another young, luminous quarterback.

1) Seattle Seahawks: Did Pete Carroll light a fire under Percy Harvin -- and, if the receiver helps the Sehawks' playoff push, can we officially anoint his coach a motivational master?

2) San Francisco 49ers: Does Anthony Davis really feel this way about the Green Bay/Appleton area, or is he simply setting up a post-football stint as a professional-wrestling villain?

3) Denver Broncos: Is Adam Gase truly intent on keeping his playoff focus, or does he simply have no desire to become the Shemp of the Browns?

4) Carolina Panthers: Does anyone actually believe Mike Shula is a prime head-coaching candidate, or is someone serving as a shill to curry favor with an agent?

5) New England Patriots: Is it weird that Bill Belichick and I kind of agree about the uselessness of extra points -- and why am I now feeling nostalgic about the days when he and I were on good terms?

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6) New Orleans Saints: Is Drew Brees so beholden to his "spread the wealth" mantra that he'd share some of his riches with his receiving targets -- or would the Earth have to move a lot more than it did two years ago for something like that to happen?

7) Indianapolis Colts: Because Pat McAfee's unintentionally revealing photo of his quarterback landed on Twitter, will a certain NFL Network anchor extraordinaire send him a "Punters Give Peep Shows, Too" T-shirt?

8) San Diego Chargers: Who was more tormented by the Chargers' impressive victory in Cincinnati on Sunday -- Andy Dalton or Mike Tomlin?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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