GREEN BAY, Wis. — The bitterly cold forecast for Sunday’s NFC wild-card game at Lambeau Field concerned San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. So twice, on Saturday and again before kickoff, he asked his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, to reconsider his attempt to play in short sleeves and without gloves.
Both times, the Wisconsin-born Kaepernick declined.
“I’m a little hardheaded at times,” Kaepernick said. “I played in cold-weather games before. I feel it’s more mental than anything.”
By nightfall, Kaepernick proved his mastery of the elements in San Francisco’s 23-20 victory over Green Bay.
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Maneuvering on a brown field with bare dirt between the hash marks, Kaepernick led San Francisco back from a 17-13 deficit to take the lead with a little more than 12 minutes to play. On the final drive, Kaepernick improvised a key 11-yard run after a pump fake, setting up Phil Dawson’s 33-yard field goal as time expired.
It may not have been record cold for an NFL game, but the conditions were brutal — 5 degrees at kickoff, with a wind chill of minus-10. And the winning kick sent 49ers players running from the sideline to celebrate, shedding their long scarlet coats.
“Didn’t think we were going to pull it out, did you?” Harbaugh asked reporters at his postgame news conference.
Harbaugh added that he had no doubts.
“It’s not our first time,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of tough guys who generated a lot of toughness.”
It was San Francisco’s fourth consecutive victory over the Packers in the past two seasons, the second in the playoffs. The 49ers advance to face the host Carolina Panthers in a divisional-round game next Sunday. Kaepernick completed 16 of 30 attempts for 227 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 98 yards.
“We did not get it done as far as keeping the quarterback in the pocket,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
The runs, Harbaugh said, were largely unscripted.
“There wasn’t a whole lot called out there today,” Harbaugh said. “Our receivers were getting grabbed. I think Colin saw that and just took matters into his own hands. He gets around the edge so fast. If it was a yard, it was 20. It was unbelievable. Just clutch.”
Though conditions were marginally better than for the NFC Championship Game played here between the Packers and the New York Giants in January 2008, which began with a temperature of minus-1 — minus-23 with the wind chill — they certainly were not optimal. Though it grew colder after the sun set, a crowd announced at 77,525 watched each team score 10 points in a wild fourth quarter that included three lead changes and a tie.
Green Bay, which lost cornerback Sam Shields and linebacker Mike Neal to knee injuries in the first quarter, went ahead 17-13. San Francisco’s Ray McDonald appeared to have Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers trapped on fourth down, until Rodgers slapped McDonald’s hand, scampered away and fired a 26-yard completion to wideout Randall Cobb at the 49ers’ 4-yard line.
Fullback John Kuhn scored from the 1 two plays later.
The week before, Rodgers and Cobb had hooked up for the winning score on a fourth down in Chicago that gave the Packers the NFC North title.
But the 49ers came right back, scoring five plays later on a 28-yard pass that Kaepernick threaded between defenders on its way to tight end Vernon Davis.
Rodgers then drove the Packers to the 49ers’ 9, where Mason Crosby kicked a 24-yard field goal to tie the score with 5:09 to play.