SAN FRANCISCO — Ever since Coach Jim Harbaugh gave second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick the starting nod over hot-handed Alex Smith, the question has hovered over the San Francisco 49ers like a cloud.
Did Harbaugh make the right decision?
The powerful and elusive Kaepernick offered a resounding answer Saturday night with a record-setting performance in a 45-31 victory over Green Bay in a divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park.
On a night when Kaepernick became Keepernick, the 49ers quarterback torched the Packers with his arm and his feet, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for three.
He scored on runs of 20 and 56 yards. The 56-yarder was the longest run by a quarterback in the playoffs, surpassing a 51-yard run by Tennessee’s Steve McNair in 2000.
Kaepernick also shattered Michael Vick’s mark of 119 yards rushing — the previous postseason rushing record by a quarterback — with a game-high 181 yards in 16 carries (including two one-yard losses on game-ending kneel downs).
For the second consecutive season, San Francisco has advanced to the NFC championship game, where it will face the winner of today’s game between Seattle and Atlanta. If the Falcons win, they will play host to the conference title game. If the Seahawks win, the game will be played at Candlestick.
Kaepernick got off to a bumpy start — his second pass was intercepted and run back 52 yards for a touchdown — but he never lost his composure, upstaging Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s reigning most valuable player.
“Our protection was good,” Harbaugh said. “Colin had a chance to go through his reads, set his feet, and fire the ball consistently all day.”
The Packers saw their season open and close with losses to the 49ers. They dropped their opener to San Francisco, 30-22, at Lambeau Field.
Saturday’s rematch featured Rodgers, a 49ers fan in Northern California who wore a Joe Montana T-shirt under his pads as a kid, and Kaepernick, who was born in Milwaukee and grew up idolizing Brett Favre.
Michael Crabtree caught two touchdown passes for the 49ers, and Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each ran for a score.
“They competed like maniacs,” Harbaugh said. “And we get another week of work.”
Saturday was the sixth time the Packers and 49ers met in the playoffs, with Green Bay still holding a 4-2 edge in those games.
Through the first two quarters, the game figured to be a back-and-forth nail biter.
David Akers capped the first half for the 49ers with a 36-yard field goal as the clock expired. That gave San Francisco a 24-21 lead.
Kaepernick’s night started with Green Bay’s Sam Shields intercepting his second pass and returning it 52 yards for a touchdown.
That didn’t rattle the second-year quarterback though. He came back on the next possession and orchestrated an eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended with his 20-yard keeper for a touchdown. That run came on third and eight.
Green Bay reclaimed the lead at the end of the first quarter with an 80-yard scoring drive that included a 44-yard pass to James Jones. Packers running back DuJuan Harris, who before he was signed as a free agent was selling cars in Jacksonville, scored on an 18-yard draw.
To the delight of their chilled crowd, the 49ers answered with consecutive touchdowns, both set up by Green Bay turnovers.
The first of those scores was a 12-yard pass from Kaepernick to Crabtree on third and goal. A muffed punt by Packers rookie Jeremy Ross led to San Francisco recovering the ball on Green Bay’s 9.
The Packers’ next possession ended with a deep, over-the-shoulder interception by 49ers cornerback Tarrell Brown, who turned and ran back the ball 39 yards to midfield.
Kaepernick drove the 49ers deep into Green Bay territory, and on third and nine scrambled up the middle for 15 yards to the Packers’ 9. However, he spiked the ball when he climbed to his feet and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, wiping out the run yardage.
No matter. Two plays later, Kaepernick hit a diving Crabtree with a 20-yard strike for a touchdown and a 21-14 advantage.