SAN FRANCISCO - Following an 11-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick to Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter Monday, the tight end walked up to the quarterback, put his hands together and made a low bow.
Kaepernick, after all, had freed Davis from a four-game imprisonment in which Davis was only a bit player in the 49ers' passing game. "I felt like somebody took the handcuffs off me," said Davis, who finished with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in San Francisco's 32-7 blowout of the Bears.
The victory made everyone forget about last week's lackluster tie with the Rams, put the 49ers in second place in the NFC with six games remaining and perhaps gave the region its first compelling quarterback controversy in years.
"We'll see," Jim Harbaugh said when asked whether Kaepernick or Alex Smith would start Sunday in New Orleans. "I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand. And we've got two quarterbacks that have a hot hand."
Kaepernick was sizzling from the start.
The second-year quarterback had done more damage with his legs than his arm this season, and the Bears were expecting a conservative game plan in his first-ever NFL start.
They didn't get it.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called play-action passes on two of the first three snaps, and Kaepernick connected on both - to Mario Manningham for eight yards and to Davis for 22 yards.
Touch passes were supposed to be Kaepernick's kryptonite, but the 49ers quarterback delivered several in the first half, none as nice as a 57 yarder that descended just past the head of Bears cornerback Kelvin Hayden into the arms of Kyle Williams to the Chicago 3-yard line. One play later, Kaepernick found Davis in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown and the 49ers had a quick 10-0 lead.
It turned out to be all they needed.
The 49ers defense thoroughly outplayed their more celebrated Bears counterparts, intercepting two Jason Campbell passes, sacking him six times and throwing in a fourth-quarter safety to boot. San Francisco held the Bears to 143 yards, the second fewest any NFL team has gained this season.
The 49ers began the week thinking that Smith, who suffered a concussion against St. Louis, would be their starter. But as the week went on, Smith's symptoms returned and Kaepernick began to take more of the practice snaps.
On Sunday night, the decision was made: Kaepernick would make his first start. Smith watched the game on the sideline and conferred with Kaepernick throughout. Afterward, he said he felt ok but that the decision to play remains in the hands of team doctors, who ruled him out for Monday. "I feel better," Smith said. "We're kind of in the middle of it."
Smith has had several excellent games this year, turning in passer ratings of 156 or better in two contests - wins over Buffalo and Arizona. Kaepernick's debut was nearly as good. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps most impressive of all, he didn't turn the ball over against a Bears defense that had forced at least two turnovers in every game this season.
Kaepernick also did something that Smith has been hesitant to do over the years - take chances when there were no obvious throwing windows. Davis had seven catches for 101 yards and no touchdowns in the four previous games.
He bowed to Kaepernick after the quarterback gave him a chance to make a play on the 11-yard reception.
"I was so proud of him at that moment because the ball that he threw me, it was one of those balls that you see Tom Brady throw," Davis said. "... It was a tight window. Very, very tight. He took the shot. He was very confident in himself, obviously, and he made it happen."
Davis has been with Smith since 2006, and he has been the quarterback's most ardent and vocal supporter throughout that span. How would he feel if Kaepernick overtook Smith for the starting job?
"It's tough," Davis said. "Alex is a genuine guy. I've been here with him since Day 1 and I've always supported him. Colin is the same way -- very humble heart, soft spoken. He wants to be great. I can't choose sides. I'm here to support either one of them."
-- Matt Barrows