Philadelphia, PA – Jim Harbaugh has been a revelation for the San Francisco 49ers organization, a coach that's been a lot closer to Bill Walsh or George Seifert than Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan or Mike Singletary.
Since arriving in the Bay Area to clean up Singletary's undisciplined mess, Harbaugh had quickly turned the 49ers back into one of the NFL's elite teams, winning 2011 Coach of the Year honors from both the Associated Press and The Sporting News for his work during his first year on the sidelines at Candlestick Park.
Ten games into the second season of the Harbaugh era, the 49ers are again atop the NFC West with an impressive 7-2-1 record. To date, the former Stanford coach has only lost five times in 26 career regular season games as an NFL head coach and already has a berth in the NFC Championship Game on his resume.
Everything was coming up Jim Harbaugh in Frisco ... until Monday night.
That might seem like a strange statement considering Harbaugh may have devised his best game plan to date on Monday Night Football, turning Colin Kaepernick into Superman against the NFL's most opportunistic defense during an emphatic 32-7 Niners win over the Chicago Bears.
Expecting a run-first quarterback, the Bears were stunned to see a confident Kaepernick stand steady in the pocket and throw for two touchdowns in his first career start.
Playing in place of the injured Alex Smith, who is still suffering from the effects of a concussion he sustained in the team's Week 10 tie against St. Louis, Kaepernick finished 16-for-23 for 243 yards and led the 49ers to scores on their first four possessions.
"They had a quarterback (Kaepernick) that hadn't played an awful lot but he was on and he looked like a seasoned vet from the start of the game," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
Kaepernick's first game at the helm of the 49ers produced more yards and touchdowns than Joe Montana's and Steve Young's debuts combined.
"I thought he did a great job and showed a lot of poise in the pocket," Harbaugh gushed when talking about Kaepernick. "He found his receivers and acquitted himself fantastically out there.
"Poise in the pocket, pushing the ball and throwing with accuracy. Did a nice job running the game plan. Everything he did was exemplar."
Fair enough. Kaepernick was spectacular and made a defense that came in with an NFL-high 30 turnovers look like Kansas State trying to stop Baylor.
But at some point Harbaugh, who was on the sidelines despite being sent to the hospital last Thursday with an irregular heartbeat, went into Chris Christie- mode with his second-year quarterback playing the role of Barack Obama.
Smith? Well, he was Mitt Romney -- scorned by the man who was once the apple of his eye. Despite winning 20 of his last 26 as the starting quarterback of the 49ers Smith was put on notice by his head coach.
"We'll see," Harbaugh said when queried about who his signal-caller will be moving forward. "I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand. And we've got two quarterbacks that have got a hot hand."
Harbaugh has earned a long leash in the City by the Bay but put yourself in Smith's place. What other veteran quarterback who has led his team to the conference championship game the year before and had it comfortably atop its division would be benched after suffering a concussion?
It's an absurd thought to just about everyone but Harbaugh, who doesn't subscribe to the unwritten rule saying a starter cannot lose his job due to injury.
"We'll make that determination as we go," the coach said. "But, there's no rule."
Quarterback controversies are usually created by the media or fans -- not the head coach of a successful team.
It's possible Harbaugh -- elated after a big victory -- just misspoke after watching Kaepernick's impressive performance but when pressed he reiterated his stance.
"Like I said, well we really have two guys that have a pretty hot hand," Harbaugh said. "But, we'll make that decision as we go forward."
And let's not forget San Francisco went hard after Peyton Manning in the offseason, a strong indication Harbaugh wanted his quarterback play upgraded.
It was probably easy for Smith to write off the Manning flirtation since Peyton is one of the all-time greats but Kaepernick is a former second round pick, who despite his performance on Monday night, is as green as the grass he was playing on.
Young, certainly among the most knowledgeable people in the world on quarterback controversies in the Bay Area, was working Monday's game as an ESPN analyst and was in Smith's corner.
"It's got to be Alex Smith," Young said on ESPN Tuesday. "He's got the body of work. This is a team that can go to the Super Bowl. He's got a body of work over many years, but especially over the last year and a half, with a lot of trust from his teammates."
"I understand the excitement for Colin and it's well deserved after yesterday," Young continued. "I know that feeling. It happened to me. But when it comes down to crunch time, is this the time to play with that? Jim Harbaugh's got to make the challenge. But for my money, you've got to have Alex Smith be the quarterback."
To be fair to Harbaugh, Smith is what he is. The Utah product has never lived up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and has settled in as a game manager, a tag most quarterbacks feel is comparable to kicking their dog.
A coach has to understand his own situation, however, and this 49ers team is good enough everywhere else to win a Super Bowl with a Brad Johnson- or Trent Dilfer-like game manager.
Kaepernick certainly brings more swagger and big play ability to the dance but every young quarterback inevitably flashes both the good and bad.
If Harbaugh pulls the trigger on Kaepernick now and the "bad" comes out at the wrong time, the toothpaste may prove to be already out of the tube. In fact, it's more than conceivable that the 49ers coach will have lost the veteran who could have put him over the top.
"Colin Kaepernick, let him nip at the heels, give him a few more reps, make him eager," Young said, "make a little more creative tension in the locker room and on the field. But you've got to declare Alex Smith the starter or else you're going to create all kinds of things you don't want that are going to take your team away from the Super Bowl."
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/2cjp9l8
THE GAMES (All Times Eastern)
Houston (9-1) at Detroit (4-6), Thursday, 12:30 p.m.
LINE: Texans by 3
THE SKINNY: The Texans improved to 9-1 with a 43-37 overtime win over Jacksonville last Sunday behind quarterback Matt Schaub, who passed for 527 yards -- matching Warren Moon for the second-most in a game in NFL history -- and wide receiver Andre Johnson, who had 14 catches for 273 yards, including a game-winning 48-yard TD reception. The Lions, who will play their 73rd Thanksgiving Day game, dropped a tough 24-20 decision to Green Bay. Keep an eye on "Megatron" Calvin Johnson, who leads the NFL with 1,117 receiving yards and has scored a touchdown in four of the past five Thanksgiving games.
PREDICTION: Texans 24, Lions 20
Washington (4-6) at Dallas (5-5), Thursday, 4:15 p.m.
LINE: Cowboys by 3
THE SKINNY: The Cowboys host the Redskins in a key NFC East battle. Dallas, which trails the New York Giants by one game in the East, rallied from a 13-0 deficit to defeat Cleveland 23-20 in overtime last Sunday in a game where Dez Bryant recorded a career-high 145 receiving yards on 12 catches. For the 'Skins it's all about rookie superstar Robert Griffin III, who is coming off his best game as a pro. RG3 threw a career-high four touchdown passes in Washington's 31-6 win over Philadelphia, completing 14-of-15 passes for a 93.3 completion percentage, the highest for a player with at least four TD passes since Steve Young back on Oct. 16, 1994.
PREDICTION: Redskins 21, Cowboys 17
New England (7-3) at NY Jets (4-6), Thursday, 8:20 p.m.
LINE: Patriots by 6 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Gronk-less Pats get right back to work on Thanksgiving Day when they make the trip down to North Jersey to face off with their desperate AFC East rival, the New York Jets. The 7-3 Patriots, who will be playing on Thanksgiving for the fifth time in team history, will be aiming to strengthen their stranglehold on the AFC East. New England is a perfect 3-0 in the division and leads it by three games over the Jets, Buffalo and Miami, who are all deadlocked at 4-6, One of the Pats' divisional wins came back on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium when they edged New York, 29-26, in overtime.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Jets 20
Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Falcons by 1
THE SKINNY: Things are heating up in the NFC South. The Falcons own the NFC's best record at 9-1 but the surging Buccaneers have won four in a row to improve to 6-4. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has won six of his past seven starts against Tampa Bay and will be aiming to bounce back from an uncharacteristic five interception performance against Arizona in Week 11. The Bucs, meanwhile, have been the most explosive team in the NFL over the past six weeks, amassing a league-high 205 points over that span.
PREDICTION: Bucs 28, Falcons 24
Minnesota (6-4) at Chicago (7-3), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Pick 'em
THE SKINNY: Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has never beaten his old team (0-3) and Chicago has been a house of horrors for the Vikings over the past decade. Minnesota has lost nine of its past 10 at Soldier Field and has allowed an average of 26 points in four straight defeats. The Vikes think they have a different team now and can make a statement in this game but it's hard to imagine second-year quarterback Christian Ponder playing a clean game against the Bears' opportunistic defense.
PREDICTION: Bears 27, Vikings 17
Oakland (3-7) at Cincinnati (5-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bengals by 8
THE SKINNY: The Bengals got back in the playoff picture with last Sunday's easy win over the Chiefs, and face a second straight dismal AFC West foe when Oakland visits the Queen City. Bengals QB Andy Dalton has heated up recently, completing 39-of-59 passes for 429 yards with six TDs and no interceptions in his past two games while all-world receiver A.J. Green has a TD catch in nine straight games, the third-longest single season streak in NFL history. The Raiders have been sinking fast but have won four of their past five versus Cincy.
PREDICTION: Bengals 33, Raiders 14
Pittsburgh (6-4) at Cleveland (2-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Steelers by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: It will be the third starting QB in three weeks for the Steelers when veteran Charlie Batch gets his turn in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich. It seems like Pittsburgh could line up Joe Schmo under center and beat the Browns, however. The Steelers have won 10 of 11 and 21 of their last 23 over the Browns, who continue to rebuild around rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson.
PREDICTION: Steelers 20, Browns 14
Buffalo (4-6) at Indianapolis (6-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Colts by 3
THE SKINNY: The Colts hope to resume their surprising playoff push after a dismal effort at New England. Indy is already 4-1 at home this season and rookie star Andrew Luck hopes to build on his five 300-yard passing games, already an NFL record for freshman. Buffalo got back in the hunt with a big win over Miami back on Nov. 15 and should have Fred Jackson back from a concussion to team up with the dynamic C.J. Spiller, who has 100-plus yards from scrimmage in five straight games and averages 6.6 yards per rush, tied for the NFL lead.
PREDICTION: Colts 23, Bills 20
Tennessee (4-6) at Jacksonville (1-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Titans by 3
THE SKINNY: The 1-9 Jags have made a change at quarterback in hopes of ending a seven-game skid. Chad Henne, who came on in relief of Blaine Gabbert in the team's Week 11 overtime loss in Houston and threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns, is the new leader in Jacksonville. Rookie first round pick Justin Blackmon had a coming out party with Henne at the controls, amassing 236 receiving yards against the Texans, the third best total by a rookie receiver in NFL history and the second best in Jaguars lore. The Titans, meanwhile, come in off a bye and hope to get back in the AFC playoff picture with a victory.
PREDICTION: Jags 21, Titans 17
Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 10 1/2
THE SKINNY: Peyton Manning and the Broncos, who have won five straight, figure to keep beating up on AFC West foes in Kansas City against the dismal 1-9 Chiefs. Manning is poised to pass his boss, John Elway (148), for the second- most regular-season wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history. Manning also needs just 25 passing yards to record his 14th season with at least 3,000. That's a stark contrast to the Chiefs QB situation. Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel plans to announce whether Brady Quinn or Matt Cassel will start against Denver at game time.
PREDICTION: Broncos 30, Chiefs 14
Seattle (6-4) at Miami (4-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Seahawks by 3
THE SKINNY: Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in five home games but just four touchdowns and eight picks in five road games. Miami, meanwhile, has lost three straight but is 5-1 all- time at home versus Seattle.
PREDICTION: Dolphins 20, Seahawks 17
Baltimore (8-2) at San Diego (4-6), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Pick 'em
THE SKINNY: The Ravens keep chugging along and will be attempting to register a ninth win for the fifth straight season under head coach John Harbaugh. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco will also be looking to improve upon his impressive 16-5 November record as a starter. Conversely the Chargers have hit the skids, losing five of six since a 3-1 start.
PREDICTION: Ravens 23, Chargers 17
St. Louis (3-6-1) at Arizona (4-6), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Cardinals by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has said he's undecided on his starting quarterback for Week 12 against the Rams, but he pulled John Skelton last Sunday after he missed a wide open Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone, saying players must be held accountable for mistakes. Those tea leaves indicate rookie Ryan Lindley is likely to remain the starter at least until Kevin Kolb is able to return from a rib injury. Lindley will be trying to halt an ugly six-game losing streak for Arizona.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 14, Rams 13
San Francisco (7-2-1) at New Orleans (5-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: The 49ers and Saints will meet for the first time since last season's Divisional Playoff, won by San Francisco 36-32. This season, New Orleans is tied for the highest-scoring offense in the NFC (28.7 points per game) while San Francisco leads the league in defense, allowing an NFL-low 13.4 points per game.
New Orleans has won five of its past six games to get back to .500 after an 0-4 start. The Saints are just the sixth team in NFL history to start 0-4 and get to 5-5 or better after 10 games.
"This season has been a long grind, especially starting 0-4, but we never pointed fingers," said Saints safety Roman Harper. "We stuck together as a team and we know that we can achieve great things if we stick together and continue this grind. We are right back to .500 and we've got to continue to grind to be in the playoff race."
PREDICTION: Saints 27, 49ers 20
Green Bay (7-3) at NY Giants (6-4), Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
LINE: Giants by 3
THE SKINNY: The Packers have won five in a row -- tied with Denver for the longest current winning streak in the NFL -- and will look to avenge last season's Divisional playoff loss to the Giants. The NFC East-leading Giants had a bye in Week 11 and will aim to halt a two-game losing streak.
"It's a six-game schedule now," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. "We're excited about it. We're excited to be back on the field. Hopefully they're well-rested and ready to go."
PREDICTION: Giants 21, Packers 20
Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7), Monday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Eagles by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: Things could get ugly in Philly on Monday when the embattled Andy Reid trots out his 3-7 bunch against his old assistant Ron Rivera and the 2-8 Panthers. All you need to know about this one is both head coaches will be looking for work in just over a month. Hey how about Rivera as Reid's defensive coordinator in San Diego?
PREDICTION: Panthers 20, Eagles 17