We are used to seeing Colin Kaepernick’s collage of tattoos. We did not expect to see them on a day when the temperature dropped below zero in Green Bay, with a wind chill that made conditions feel 20-below. It was so f-f-f-friggin’ cold at Lambeau Field, the Cheeseheads crazy enough to tailgate were roasting beer cans on the open fire to thaw them. Think Kaepernick, as a proud Wisconsin native, was returning home to be some San Francisco wuss?
He would expose skin, bare arms and all. Never mind that the right arm must be protected from the harsh elements so it can be effective and efficient. Never mind that the hometown hero, Aaron Rodgers, was all bundled up in long sleeves. Kaepernick was making a statement: He was a badder bad-ass than anyone on the — I’ve waiting a long time to write these words — frozen tundra.
“I’ve played in cold-weather games before,” he said afterward, unfazed. “I feel like it’s more mental than anything.”
In the fourth quarter, when the other combatants were dangerously close to numbness and delirium, who was the one looking all warm and comfy? That would be Kaepernick, who rose above the deep freeze to remind us why he was showing off those tats on preseason magazine covers. As Rodgers was heating up and driving the Packers a 17-13 lead, with John Kuhn following a 1-yard touchdown run by slipping and failing to execute a Lambeau Leap into the stands, the 49ers needed an answer. First came a touchdown drive, with Kaepernick finding Vernon Davis with the naked right arm for a 28-yard touchdown pass. After the Packers countered with a tying field goal, Kaepernick responded with another long, time-consuming drive, one that could have died on third-and-8 at the Green Bay 38 with 1:08 left.
This time, with the Packers blitzing, he faked with the arm, pumping the football but keeping it and dashing. On a frenetic, fabulous opening weekend of the NFL posteason, his 11-yard scramble for a first down will be a prime memory. It set up Phil Dawson’s 33-yard field goal on the game’s final play, giving the 49ers a thrilling 23-20 victory and a date at Carolina next Sunday in the divisional round.
“It was unbelievable, the way he was getting the edge. I mean, just clutch,” said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who made the memorably bold move of benching Alex Smith for Kaepernick last season. “Colin Kaepernick, I think we all can agree, is a clutch performer.”
He never sounds too impressed by himself, either. “Just trying to figure out a way to get that first down,” Kaepernick said of his big run. “Had a play called, we didn’t get the look that we wanted. It worked out for us.”
So did the short sleeves, an experience that will come in handy if the 49ers advance to the Super Bowl in the Meadowlands, where media-driven snowsteria has New York in a tizzy about a possible blizzard. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First they need to survive the Panthers, the defense-and-Cam-Newton-driven machine that beat the 49ers 10-9 in San Francisco in early November. “They got us the first time,” linebacker NaVarro Bowman said, per the Associated Press.
“What’s on our minds is to get them now. It’s the playoffs. Win or go home.”
When the Saints surprised the Eagles and won in Philadelphia, it delayed a potential rematch between what probably are the NFL’s two best and most complete teams — Seattle and San Francisco — until the NFC title game. Of course, seeing the upsets in the wild-card round, the only thing predictable about the postseason is its unpredictability.
It wasn’t the coldest football game ever or even the coldest at Lambeau. In fact, it was only the seventh-coldest game at the stadium in the last 50 years, per the Associated Press, with the 1967 Ice Bowl and its minus-13 reading still taking deep-freeze honors. Still, the state’s honor and identity were on the line Sunday. Rodgers had mentioned it before the game, saying, “Not everybody in this locker room is from the great state of Wisconsin. But we do practice in it. We live in it. So I think we’re going to be a little bit better at adapting initially to it. But once the game starts, it’s about who can execute in the cold weather.”
Rodgers was outplayed in his house by Kaepernick, who threw for 227 yards and ran for 98 on seven carries. It was the third straight game against the Packers when he has won the headlines, recalling his dominant playoff performance running the ball last year and his 412-yard, three-TD passing day in the regular-season opener this season. “Very disappointing, personally,” said Rodgers, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 177 yards and one touchdown. “It’s frustrating not to play your best game in tough conditions. Defense holds them to 23 points. We should win that game.”
In the frostbitten final moments, the chill-slayer was Kaepernick. He wasn’t wearing a glove on his throwing hand, either. You can say he gave the Packers the cold shoulder.