Kragthorpe: Kaepernick is key for 49ers vs. Falcons
Happily for those defensive players from BYU and Utah State, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is somebody else's problem now.
As a Nevada senior in 2010, Kaepernick spurred victories over BYU (27-13) and USU (56-42) with his dynamic running and passing. Now that he's supplanted Alex Smith as San Francisco's QB, he's the talk of the NFL as the most intriguing player who's preparing for Sunday's conference championship games. A look at the 49ers:
Team's theme: San Francisco is trying to advance beyond last season's disappointing ending, an overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC title game, with a quarterback change that's designed to give them something more at this stage.
How they got here: The 49ers won the NFC West title with an 11-4-1 record, earning the No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye. They beat Green Bay 45-31 in the divisional playoffs behind Kaepernick's 444 total yards.
Super Bowl-bound if: The NFL's No. 11-ranked offense can match Atlanta's production. The 49ers generated only 17 points in nearly five quarters of last year's title game, and will have to do more this time in Atlanta.
Homeward-bound if: They're bothered by playing on the road. The franchise's last playoff victory away from home came in 1989, when Joe Montana beat Chicago. And if this game is close, can the 49ers trust veteran kicker David Akers? He made a 36-yard field goal against Green Bay, but his previous struggles led the team to sign another kicker last week.
Biggest variable: Kaepernick. He's poised and competitive, but he did throw an interception that was returned for a Green Bay touchdown, and his eagerness to extend plays always creates the potential for trouble. How will he respond in this environment?
Best player: Patrick Willis, inside linebacker. A star ever since entering the NFL in 2007, Willis can make tackles and cover receivers, with a tough assignment Sunday against Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez. He's among four first-team All-Pro players for the league's No. 3-ranked defense.
Best player you've never heard of: Mike Iupati, offensive guard. A third-year pro from Idaho, where he played for current Utah line coach Dan Finn, Iupati has become the anchor of one of the NFL's best lines as a first-team All-Pro selection.
Local connections: Smith (No. 11), the former Ute quarterback, had gone 19-5-1 as a starter under coach Jim Harbaugh, who permanently turned to Kaepernick after Smith missed one game with a concussion in November. Smith was having a nice season, completing 70 percent of his passes. Will Tukuafu (No. 48) is a backup nose tackle from East High School who plays occasionally as a blocker in short-yardage situations. Mark Uyeyama, the 49ers' strength and conditioning coach, held that position at Utah State.
Reasons to cheer for them: Enough time has gone by from the 49ers' dynasty of last century to make them lovable again, and they came so close to the Super Bowl last season, only to have two fumbles on punt returns cost them against the Giants.
Reasons to cheer against them: Smith's fans may be wishing for Kaepernick to fail, invalidating Harbaugh's quarterback switch, although it's probably too late to extend Smith's career in San Francisco. And even though their last championship came 18 years ago, the 49ers already have five titles.
Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe introduces the NFL's championship game contestants. Today: San Francisco 49ers.