Playoff experience paid off in the wild-card round, and it might end up determining who wins the NFC Championship.
Colin Kaepernick is no longer the unproven quarterback from Nevada. Despite being only 26 years old and having only 27 career starts -- four in the playoffs -- Kaepernick is now a seasoned championship-caliber quarterback. He beat the Green Bay Packers 23-20 Sunday with his feet and his arm and could be heading to his second consecutive Super Bowl.
"Our guys have been down this road before," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of a team that has been to two NFC title games and one Super Bowl.
Even though he hadn't won a playoff road game until this postseason, New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees has 10 starts in the playoffs and a Super Bowl ring. His experience showed up Saturday in rebounding from a two-interception first half in a 26-24, come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Eagles and the inexperienced Nick Foles.
The NFC divisional round features two rematches. The Seahawks host a Saints team trying to make up for a 34-7 loss in Seattle on Dec. 2. That's the early game next Saturday (4:35 p.m. ET). At 1 p.m. ET next Sunday, the 49ers play at Carolina, which beat the 49ers at Candlestick 10-9 on Nov. 10.
Can Carolina's Cam Newton win his first playoff game against the seasoned Kaepernick? Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is seasoned well beyond his two years in the league, but can he get the best of the older Brees and get to the championship game?
These are changing times in the NFC. The more young quarterbacks such as Kaepernick, Wilson and maybe Newton win, the tougher it is for the veteran quarterbacks. Look at Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. He has been in nine playoff games, but he lost at home to the 49ers and the younger Kaepernick in a game in which he played well.
Here are the 10 biggest questions heading into the NFC divisional round.
1. Can the 49ers beat Carolina? Yes, largely because of Michael Crabtree. Crabtree was on injured reserve when the 49ers lost to the Panthers in Week 10. He has played only six games since his return from a torn Achilles tendon, but he's starting to get hot at the right time. Against the Packers, Crabtree caught eight of the 13 passes thrown his way and had 125 yards receiving.
Without Crabtree in the 10-9 loss in November, Kaepernick completed only seven passes to wide receivers for a mere 58 yards. Now, Crabtree can do that in a half, and, more important, his presence opens things up for Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.
Until Crabtree returned, Kaepernick struggled with the passing offense and critics wondered if he regressed as a quarterback. That wasn't the case. He needed Crabtree to make the passing offense complete. Since Crabtree's return, Kaepernick has completed 103 of 171 passes for 1,437 yards. The 49ers now have a legitimate passing attack to hurt the talented Panthers defense.
2. What makes Kaepernick unstoppable? Harbaugh explained it the best. "The unique part about him is how much ground he covers," Harbaugh said. "If it was 1 yard, it was 20. I've never seen this before."