A big, black brace rested on Justin Smith's arm Saturday as he did battle in the trenches against the Green Bay Packers.
Well, perhaps rested isn't the right word to use.
Smith returned from his left triceps injury and looked active as ever, giving the 49ers their full-strength defense for the first time since Week 15.
While many may have expected Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to be the ones putting up gaudy totals, it was Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers who emerged victorious with a postseason franchise record of 579 yards in the 45-31 win.
All the while, Smith stayed on the field for virtually all of his team's defensive snaps, even into the final stages with the game well-decided.
"It was what it was," Smith said. "It felt pretty good. It felt a heck of a lot better than I thought it was going to feel. Just got to keep on going."
The Cowboy and his teammates will be roping and riding again next week in the NFC title game for the second straight year and the 14th time in franchise history.
Saturday night's contest was marked with a dominant performance in the second half by the 49ers defense. San Francisco took a 24-21 lead into the locker room at intermission, but limited the Packers to just 3 points until Greg Jennings' futile touchdown catch in the game's final minute.
It's amazing what a few minutes with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can do at halftime. The Packers had just five possessions in the second half, three of which ended in punts, while another ended in a field goal and another in Jennings' score.
"We came in, we settled down a little bit and just played our game," Smith said. "(Rodgers) was speeding up the tempo, slowing it down at times and changing up what they did. We were able to settle down a little bit and get more in our rhythm."
As impressive as the second half was, the first half also featured its memorable moments.
Safety C.J. Spillman changed the tone of the game early in the second quarter, when he got past his man as a gunner down the right sideline in punt coverage and alertly jumped on a muffed punt by Jeremy Ross. Spillman's recovery gave the 49ers the ball at the 9-yard line, setting up Michael Crabtree's 12-yard touchdown catch from Kaepernick to make the score 14-14.
"It was a big momentum changer for us," Spillman said. "We started the game with an interception for a touchdown, so that helped us get back in the game. It's just something that we practice on every week. It's the group collectively working together and when we work together great things happen."
On Green Bay's next possession, cornerback Tarell Brown accounted for the next 49ers takeaway when he made an over-the-shoulder interception on a deep pass by Rodgers before returning it 39 yards to midfield. Minutes later, Crabtree hauled in the second touchdown of his night in a topsy-turvy first half.
"I just tried to track the ball down," Brown said. "The d-line did an amazing job of putting pressure on those guys and we just wanted to get our hands on the receivers as much as possible."
But the 49ers would go on to outscore the Packers 21-10 in the second half, thanks to Kaepernick's strong effort that included an electrifying 56-yard touchdown run.
As the offense built up the lead in the second half, the defense was inspired to keep up.
"It humbles us as a defense," two-time All-Pro NaVorro Bowman said. "Normally, Kap's out there playing aggressive, doing things with his feet, making the right reads – we're so amped to get out there and get off the field as soon as we can so we can get Kap back out there and make their defense tired."
Just like Smith said, it's always a good feeling when you knock a competitor like Rodgers out of the playoffs. He and his teammates knew they would have a tall task to handle, but they did it.
"It was a war, it was a battle," Brown said. "Any time you're in this situation and you're going against a top caliber team, it's going to be that. They're going to come back and fight just like we were. We weren't backing down and they weren't backing down."
But there's a big difference between the 2012 squad and the 2011 team – this one has been here before.
Admittedly, Bowman said he often thinks about last year's heartbreaking, 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship. Now the 49ers have a chance to prove they can make it over the hump and into the Super Bowl.
"For us to get past this one and have a chance at it like we did last year, we're definitely not going to make the same mistakes," Bowman said. "In the beginning of the year, our goal was to get back to this point and make it a different outcome than what it was last year."
Offense Runs Wild
Where to start?
Kaepernick and the offense had a historic outing on Saturday, breaking numerous NFL and team records along the way.
Kaepernick set a single-game record – playoffs or not – with 181 rushing yards, the most ever by a quarterback. With Frank Gore's 119-yard effort on the ground and Michael Crabtree's nine-catch, 119-yard day through the air, the 49ers became the first NFL team to ever have two, 100-yard rushers and a 100-yard receiver in the same playoff game.
"It was fun," Gore said. "Our offensive line did a great job, Kaepernick did a great job and our coordinator (Greg Roman) did a great job. … We just have to keep working. We know how it feels from last year and not getting it done."
The 323 rushing yards were also a franchise record in the postseason, while Kaepernick's 56-yard touchdown was the longest quarterback run in 49ers playoff history. The 45 points were also the third-best postseason mark in 49ers history.
"Thought it was a great team performance," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Great team victory."