Playoff Musings: Colin Kaepernick comes up big in the clutch

Colin Kaepernick comes up huge again for the 49ers in a playoff win Green Bay. (USATSI)
Colin Kaepernick comes up huge again for the 49ers in a playoff win in Green Bay. (USATSI)

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It's all about the quarterbacks come playoff time. We saw Andrew Luck and Drew Brees and Philip Rivers win to open the playoffs.

That left one quarterback to advance from the late game Sunday. Would it be Aaron Rodgers, who already has a ring, or Colin Kaepernick

It looked like it would be Rodgers, but every time the Packers did something on offense Kaepernick did something else to top it. He drove the 49ers twice to go-ahead scores after the Packers took the lead and then drove them to a game-winning field goal on the final play for a 23-20 victory to advance to the divisional round against the Panthers.

Kaepernick joined the quarterback party, and it is a heck of a party next week if you like great quarterbacks.

Kaepernick's numbers weren't great against the Packers (16 of 30, 227 yards, one touchdown, one interception). But he ran for 98 yards on seven carries, most of it off scrambles from the pocket.

The biggest run came on third-and-8 from the Green Bay 38 with 1:13 left. Kaepernick went back to throw, was blitzed and ran left for 11 yards and a first down to set up the winning kick.

Earlier in that drive, he was nearly picked on a horrible throw, but came back to complete a big throw on third down for 17 yards to Michael Crabtree. That's telling.

There are eight quarterbacks left in the field. Four are either in their second or third seasons: Kaepernick, Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. All, with the exception of Newton, have been in multiple playoff games.

So while the great ones are still left, guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, we're seeing these young guys emerging before our eyes.

Which one can win it all? 

If Kaepernick can play from the pocket like he did against the Packers, especially at clutch time, he just could be that guy. I had my doubts about him as a pocket passeer at times, but what he did agaisnt Green Bay is starting to convince me that he just might end up being special in the pocket -- and when he runs out of it.

When we read the recaps and look back at what took place in San Diego's upset victory over the Bengals, they will focus on Andy Dalton playing poorly, the Bengals losing again in the playoffs and the San Diego defense. I would like to salute the San Diego offensive line. They lost center Nick Hardwick early in the game with a head injury, yet were able to get enough push in the run game to run for almost 200 yards -- yes, a bunch came on the late 58-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Brown -- and they also kept the Bengals' blitz off Rivers for the most part. The Bengals had one sack of Rivers in the game. The two tackles, King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker, both had good days. Moving forward, the play of the offensive line will be huge for the Chargers as they ready to play the Broncos.

Do the Bengals need to get a new quarterback? No. But Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs and he didn't play well against the Chargers.  He did throw 33 touchdown passes in the regular season, but quarterbacks are defined by the playoffs. He will be back as the starter next year, but do the Bengals give him a new deal? That's the issue now.  I doubt it. He has one more year left. That's too risky. 

I am a big fan of Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, but he might have cost himself some money against the Chargers. He had one tackle and one pressure in the game. As an unrestricted free agent, he is set to get a big payday. But his sack numbers haven't been great this season with just four. He did have a good season playing the run, but that's not enough to get a huge deal.

The return of Melvin Ingram to the Chargers' defense is huge. He has a ton of pass-rush ability and he can set the edge for the run. When he got hurt in the offseason, it was a damning blow to the San Diego defense. The kid has star potential. With him back, as well as Jarrett Johnson, the San Diego defense is significantly better. That showed up against the Bengals.

Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden might have the name, but I hate the way he calls a game. It's just infuriating watching him avoid the vertical routes on early downs and early in the game. He might get a head coaching job, but should he? 

There was a report that new Bucs coach Lovie Smith, who was hired last week, is getting total control of the football operations in Tampa. I don't like it. I think the job is too much for one man. The Bucs should have hired a general manager to work above Smith. Bad move.

I thought the Packers should have called a timeout after the completion to James Jones late in the first half. It would have given Rodgers a chance for a shot into the end zone. He is smart enough not to take a sack without any timeouts left. They settled for a field goal. 

The Packers were way too banged up on defense. They lost so many players this season and during the game. They needed Clay Matthews more than anything to get pressure on Kaepernick.

One of the best tackles of the weekend came when Eric Reid tackled Randall Cobb late in the game by his shoestring to keep him out of the end zone at the San Francisco 9 with 6:12 left. If he doesn't make it, Cobb walks into the end zone for a four-point lead.

Referee Jeff Triplette has come under a lot of scrutiny this season, a lot of it rightfully so, but he made the right call when he reviewed the completion from Dalton to Jermaine Gresham that came late in the first half of the Chargers-Bengals game. Gresham made the catch, was hit in the back, got two feet down and then a foot out of bounds. Play dead then. No matter what happens when he rolls to the ground. That set up a late field goal by the Bengal to take a 10-7 lead.

Why can't Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer get a real chance at a head coaching job? Anybody?

The Panthers are getting no respect. They are not even favored over the 49ers. Didn't they beat them at San Francisco?

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an... Full Bio

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