By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - A bold mid-season quarterback change will get a high-profile test when Colin Kaepernick leads the San Francisco 49ers against Aaron Rodgers and the visiting Green Bay Packers in the NFL playoffs on Saturday.
Kaepernick replaced signal caller Alex Smith, after the former top draft pick came out with a concussion in Week 10 and San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh decided to make the switch permanent, putting his faith in the second-year player.
A playoff baptism under fire awaits 25-year-old Kaepernick, who makes his National Football League postseason debut against reigning NFL most valuable player Rodgers, who two years ago led the Packers to the Super Bowl title.
Kaepernick, like some of the other new breed of quarterbacks that have hit the NFL, features running skills that have made him the 49ers' second-leading rusher with 415 yards and a 6.6 yards-per-carry average that includes five rushing touchdowns. He has also thrown for 10 scores.
"He's improved in all phases. Not dramatically because I think he was good to start with," Harbaugh said of Kaepernick.
Smith, who helped take the Niners into overtime of the NFC title game last season, was playing at a high level when he was sidelined but the 28-year-old top pick of the 2005 Draft does not have the arm strength or running speed of Kaepernick, who went 5-2 after taking over as starter.
The teams met in their season opener with San Francisco (11-4-1) prevailing 30-22 over the Packers (12-5) in Green Bay, but that was with Smith calling the plays.
In an odd twist, the two quarterbacks grew up rooting for the teams they will be facing for a berth in the NFC title game.
Rodgers grew up in Chico, California, about three hours northeast of San Francisco and has never played a regular season game or playoff contest in the City by the Bay.
"A lot of good memories growing up watching Steve Young and Joe Montana on TV and the Super Bowl wins," Rodgers told reporters. "Being a 49er fan, that was a team I enjoyed watching and dreamt about playing for."
Kaepernick, who was born in Wisconsin before his immediate family moved to California, said he grew up a Packers fan.
"They were the only team I watched. I remember growing up watching Brett Favre every Sunday. He was just a playmaker. He wasn't afraid to take chances," Kaepernick said.
While Green Bay boasts a more explosive aerial attack, the 49ers boast one of the most fierce defenses in the league.
"It's one of the top defenses in the league, if not the best," said Rodgers, who threw for 39 touchdowns and just eight interceptions during the regular season.
"A lot of play makers all over the field at every level. They make a lot of plays on the football, fly to the football, tackle well, get after the passer.
"It's a big-time defense."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)