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Colin Kaepernick faces crucial clash with Seahawks on Thursday

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick might never play a more pivotal game than the one he's facing against the Seattle Seahawks this Thursday night.

That might sound crazy for a player who already has appeared in one Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Games, but it makes perfect sense if you've followed his last two seasons.

Kaepernick is trying to avoid sliding into the same abyss that already has swallowed a formerly exciting quarterback named Robert Griffin III. A huge game against his NFC West rivals would engender more faith that Kaepernick is turning a critical corner in his own embattled career.

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The only reason it's even worth talking about Kaepernick in this way is the recent body of work he's produced. For two consecutive weeks, we've seen him perform at a high level. One effort ended in a 30-27 loss to the New York Giants. The other resulted in last Sunday's 25-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Both gave the impression that Kaepernick was making notable progress at a time when disappointing play had become all too common for him.

The game against Seattle offers a different type of challenge. It gives Kaepernick the chance to test his recent development against a more talented defense, one that has frustrated him nearly every time these two teams have faced off. Kaepernick summed up the importance of this game to a 2-4 49ers team in comments to local media after the Ravens victory, saying, "We need this win on Thursday" -- but he might as well have been talking about himself, too.

Kaepernick's overall numbers against the Seahawks are a pretty accurate representation of what has plagued him as a young quarterback. In six starts against Seattle, he's thrown nine interceptions, three touchdown passes and walked away with one victory. Kaepernick isn't the only reason Seattle has outscored the 49ers, 147-62, in those meetings. However, it was painfully evident that San Francisco was never going to consistently beat the Seahawks as long as Kaepernick couldn't elevate his game.

What makes this upcoming contest so compelling isn't that it's another chapter in a heated rivalry. After all, the Seahawks have endured their own problems during their own 2-4 start, as they've blown fourth-quarter leads in every one of their losses. It's that this has become a year where we'll be able to truly judge the 27-year-old Kaepernick once and for all. A good game against the Seahawks would give him more momentum to self-correct a career that started sensationally before fizzling over the last couple of years. That includes all the issues with accuracy and decision-making that hindered his game last season. You can throw in all the awkward interactions with the media, as well, the tense press briefings where Kaepernick came off as bitter and arrogant instead of frustrated and hopeful. At that time, he was creating an image of a young man who had no clue of what came with being a franchise quarterback. Even if Kaepernick wasn't acting that way behind closed doors, he was becoming toxic every time a camera zeroed in on him.

The hopes around the 49ers this offseason revolved around new changes to help their young star's development. They parted ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. New head coach Jim Tomsula promised an offense that would be more run-heavy and more willing to accept input from Kaepernick. Kaepernick even went the extra mile, spending part of his offseason training with former NFL quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner.

All that optimism eventually faded when the 49ers lost four straight after a season-opening win over Minnesota. Kaepernick hit rock bottom in a 47-7 loss to Arizona -- when the Cardinals returned two of his career-high four interceptions for touchdowns -- and then looked feeble once again in a 17-3 defeat to Green Bay. Everything was on the table when it came to criticizing Kaepernick after he threw five interceptions and one touchdown pass in his first four games: his mechanics, his confidence, his future.

Even 49ers icon and Hall of Famer Joe Montana offered his own two cents during a recent interview with NFL Network. When asked what the 49ers could do to help Kaepernick improve, Montana said the quarterback should start running more: "Yeah, he says he can play in the pocket -- everybody says that as a quarterback. I'll tell you I can run the read-option. I'm not sure you want me to run the read-option, but I'll tell you I can, just like he's going to do the same. And it's different. It's completely different.

"So let him do the things that he does well. He'll take that team back and get it winning again, but you can't force him to do something and make him start thinking and then everybody questions every throw he makes. Let him be himself."

Those comments sound vaguely similar to what Mike Vick supporters used to say about him when he played in Atlanta. Like Kaepernick, Vick was an electric athlete who could terrorize opponents with his legs and flabbergast purists with his arm. It wasn't until Vick wound up in Philadelphia, nearly 10 years after he entered the league -- and after serving a 23-month federal prison sentence for dogfighting -- that he matured into a more polished passer. Kaepernick won't last nearly as long if he can't continue to work out his own issues.

The biggest hurdles he faces involve time. Thanks to the limitations of the current collective bargaining agreement, Kaepernick is allowed to devote only so many weeks during the offseason to work with his respective coaches. It was a wise move by Kaepernick to connect with Warner this past spring to work on mechanics. It would've been even more beneficial for him to spend constant hours at the team facility with new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst and other members of the 49ers' staff.

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That challenge might partly explain Kaepernick's early struggles. What's been harder to comprehend is why he started playing so much better the past two weeks. Some of that might have to do with facing two lousy pass defenses -- and spending more time under center than in the shotgun -- but he's still produced two gems when he most needed them. Kaepernick's 128.2 passer rating against Baltimore (he completed 16 of his 27 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns) was his highest in nearly two years. He also played well enough against New York (262 yards and two more scores) to put San Francisco in position to win that game before the Giants mounted a last-minute comeback.

The question now becomes what Kaepernick can do for his third act. He's picking up steam at a critical juncture -- and it's important to note here what that means for the long haul. As many people pointed out when he signed that six-year, $126-million extension in June 2014, the deal was a team-friendly arrangement. If the 49ers don't like what they see moving forward, they can move on from Kaepernick without suffering any substantial financial dings.

By accepting that deal, Kaepernick was betting on himself. He was wagering that he would continue to grow, to impress, to climb the ranks of NFL passers until he was mentioned with the elite. This week, the next step in this odyssey is playing a team that isn't nearly what it used to be. If Kaepernick still has a bright future in this league, he'll prove that a lot is changing with him, as well.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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