Late last season it felt like the 49ers were destined to be in the Super Bowl—and then, suddenly, it all fell apart. That Giants-Niners NFC Championship game still haunts me. I replay that muffed punt over and over again in my head only to have the image of Kyle Williams fumbling the ball in overtime, which set up the Giants for the game winning score, enter into that negative feedback loop. It's easy to blame Kyle Williams for everything, but mistakes take on a whole new level of significance in a very close, hard-fought contest.
Frighteningly, that offers a near-perfect segue into a quick look at tonight's bout between a Bears team that seems destined for the NFC Championship Game and a Niners squad that has been at intervals absolutely inspiring (remember when Alex Smith was nearly perfect?), shaking most fears of a lackluster followup to a phenomenal first year under Jim Harbaugh, and also glaringly flawed (that abysmal loss at home to the Giants, for example). And if having arguably the two best defenses in the league square off against each other wasn't enough, both starting quarterbacks will be standing on the sidelines tonight with concussion symptoms. Worryingly, it appears that the San Francisco camp believed that Alex Smith would be cleared to play and allowed him to take "all the meaningful practice reps" last week, only for Smith to fail to be cleared to play, putting the Niners, in the words of ESPN's Mike Sando, "at a quarterback disadvantage going into the game."
A lot of talk around the web is focusing on how Jason Campbell's experience as a starter in Washington and the Bears' defense's love of scoring defensive touchdowns tips the scales quite a bit in Chicago's favor. And with Colin Kaepernick making his first regular-season start ever in a huge primetime match up after a week of practice where all the emphasis was on getting Alex Smith ready for the game... There are a lot of things going for Chicago tonight and a fair few things playing against the Niners.
There are also reasons to be hopeful, and one of the main reasons is Kaepernick himself. He has dazzled in his limited role on offense all season and did all anyone could ask of him against the Rams after Alex Smith was injured, and the Bears just can't have that much tape on him, limiting how much the defense could prepare. Brian Urlacher and company have also been preparing to play against Alex Smith, who was only recently ruled out, so even what little tape the Bears have on the former Nevada star has likely not been examined as carefully as they'd like now. Kaepernick is for all intents and purposes an unknown element. The Bears will surely try to rattle him, to play on his inexperience at the professional level, but Kaepernick hasn't looked the type to get rattled. That said, he hasn't played against the Chicago Bears defense in primetime. Still, until Kaepernick throws his second or third interception and looks all but useless as anything but a running quarterback, I'm going to remain optimistic about tonight.
While the epic proportions this game was taking on have diminished a little in the wake of the two concussions, the defensive contest will still be truly fantastic to watch. Sadly, I have to concede that Chicago have been the superior defense this year. The Niners love to be the underdogs, however, doing what they have to do to prove the critics (and some of their fans) wrong, and tonight offers a perfect opportunity to shake off that awful loss to the Giants, the anticlimactic draw against the Rams, and show everyone that San Francisco has what it takes to make it back to the NFC Championship game, perhaps beyond.