GREEN BAY, Wis. — Born in Milwaukee and raised a Packers fan, Colin Kaepernick beat Green Bay for the third time in 12 months, as the San Francisco 49ers rode their quarterback to a 23-20 wild-card playoff victory at frigid Lambeau Field on Sunday.
Phil Dawson kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired to deal the Packers their third first-round playoff loss under coach Mike McCarthy.
“He can make all the throws,” Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “With the running, sometimes you have a free hitting like we had all day in his face and he puts his foot in the ground and before you know it, he’s 15-20 yards down the field, and you’re sitting back like, what’s going on? But you have to give him credit for his mobility.”
Kaepernick had 325 total yards, including 98 rushing yards, and he sent the Packers home from the playoffs for the second straight season.
The reigning NFC champions set up a rematch with the Carolina Panthers next Sunday in Charlotte. Carolina scratched out a 10-9 victory at San Francisco on Nov. 10. The 49ers ride a seven-game winning streak into the divisional playoff meeting.
“We owe them one,” Kaepernick said.
Kaepernick froze Green Bay’s defense with a pump fake, tucked the ball and scrambled to his left for the open field, gaining 11 yards and a pivotal first down to the Packers’ 27 on a third-and-6 play with 1:07 to go.
“The unique part is how much ground he covers,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I think that’s unique. I’ve never seen that before. But he made some pretty clutch throws today too.”
Kaepernick had seven carries for 98 yards and passed for 227 yards. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree had eight receptions for 125 yards.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked four times but repeatedly pulled himself off the frozen turf to complete 17 of 26 passes for 177 yards.
“Very disappointing,” Rodgers said. “Personally, it’s frustrating not to play your best game. Tough conditions. But defense holds them to 23 points, we should win that game.”
Just before the two-minute warning, Packers cornerback Micah Hyde dropped a would-be interception that would have set Green Bay up on the 49ers’ side of midfield with two timeouts remaining. There was nothing but open field in front of the rookie.
“It was just a drop. Nothing was to be thought about. I was there to make the play and try to climb the ladder to get it and it slipped out of my hands,” Hyde said.
Dawson, who was 11-for-11 in the regular season, kicked his third game-winner in his first season with the 49ers. It was nearly blocked, but sailed through the outstretched arms of Packers cornerback Davon House before angling inside the right upright.
“We were one play away from getting it done today,” McCarthy said. “This is what playoff football is all about.”
The Packers tied the game 20-all with 5:09 remaining on Mason Crosby’s 24-yard field goal, the third score in a seven-minute span in the fourth quarter following a scoreless third. Seven minutes earlier, the Packers took a 17-13 lead on fullback John Kuhn’s second touchdown run of the season, a 1-yard plunge that capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive kept going by Rodgers’ 26-yard connection with wide receiver Randall Cobb on fourth-and-1 from the 49ers’ 20.
That score was matched on San Francisco’s next drive. With 10:31 left in the game, Kaepernick hit tight end Vernon Davis for a 28-yard touchdown for the fourth lead change in the game, staking San Francisco to a 20-17 advantage. Davis was matched up in single coverage against inside linebacker A.J. Hawk. Kaepernick’s 24-yard run down the left sideline set up the score.
“Everybody on the offense, when we had to make a play, we did,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said.
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who was limited to 41 yards in his NFL debut at San Francisco in Week 1, had 21 carries for 81 yards by the middle of the fourth quarter but Green Bay’s offense didn’t get another chance.
Crosby’s 34-yard field goal as time expired in the first half cut the Packers’ deficit to 13-10.
Trailing 10-7, Kaepernick’s season-long 42-yard run slashing off left guard out of the Pistol formation carried the 49ers to the 12-yard line. Gore punched it in two plays later, charging up the middle out of a three-tight end formation and easily into the end zone as San Francisco regained a six-point lead.
The Packers moved the chains for the first time in the game with a 6-yard completion from Rodgers to Kuhn with 11:42 left in the second quarter, on a drive that began with cornerback Tramon Williams’ interception of Kaepernick at the Green Bay 13. Kaepernick said the game-time temperature of 5 degrees, which dipped to 15-below with the wind-chill factor by the end of the game, was no factor in the game.
“It’s not that cold, it’s all mental,” he said with a smile, allowing that left tackle Joe Staley’s suggestion that Kaepernick went sleeveless to expose his tattooed arms was “part of it.”
The conversion sent the Packers into the hurry-up with the 49ers caught in their nickel defense. Rodgers completed five consecutive passes for 40 yards and Lacy added seven carries for 25 yards to drive inside the 10-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 5, Rodgers rolled right and fired a touchdown to Nelson with 5:50 left in the half.
San Francisco ran 25 plays in the first quarter and had the ball for nearly 10 minutes but led just 6-0 with 2:17 remaining on a pair of Dawson chip-shot field goals.
Crabtree caught four passes for 70 yards on San Francisco’s opening drive.
“If my life depended on it and someone had to catch a ball, I’d enlist Michael Crabtree to do it,” a well-amped Harbaugh said, adding that “Michael Crabtree … he catches everything.”
NOTES: Packers LT David Bahktiari (concussion) was replaced by Marshall Newhouse in the fourth quarter. … 49ers LB Aldon Smith (muscle cramps) left the game in the first half but returned in the third quarter and recorded a quarterback sack. … The 49ers’ four regular-season losses were to teams still alive in the postseason (Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina, New Orleans). … Packers CB Sam Shields was assisted to the sideline by trainers and taken to the locker room on a cart with a knee injury on the 49ers’ first offensive possession. He was replaced by second-year CB Davon House. … Packers OLB Clay Matthews (thumb) and 49ers CB Carlos Rogers (hamstring) were inactive. … OLB Mike Neal (knee) left for Green Bay after the first defensive series. OLB Andy Malumba (knee) left the game briefly in the third quarter. Because of the personnel shortage, defensive coordinator Dom Capers briefly used four down linemen. … 49ers PK Phil Dawson kicked a 22-yard field goal to cap San Francisco’s first drive. The 49ers outscored opponents 46-0 this season on game-opening drives.