SEATTLE — Colin Kaepernick is carrying himself with a swagger much like a year ago, when he led the San Francisco 49ers to their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years as a newbie starter at quarterback.
And for good reason right now. Kaepernick's reigning NFC champion Niners (14-4) are on a roll, having won eight straight games as they head into the NFC championship Sunday against the NFC West rival Seahawks for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
They are healthy and at full capacity in a much-improved receiving corps. On the defensive front, too.
For Kaepernick, this game is far different from the first time San Francisco visited CenturyLink Field back in September and left with an embarrassing 29-3 defeat. He has come a long way since that game, and even more so since last year's special run that fell just short of the franchise's sixth championship in a 34-31 Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Kaepernick had been an NFL starter for only two months at that point.
"He's comfortable. It's not a new situation for him," Anquan Boldin said. "Last year was his first time in the playoffs. This year, he has an understanding of what it's like, because anytime a guy is in the playoffs for the first time, it can be tough. Everything is ramped up even more in the playoffs. ... So, you see he's a lot more comfortable now, he's a lot more relaxed and seems like the game has slowed down a lot to him."
Having his top three targets on the field together at Seattle this time around should be a big help. Michael Crabtree is back in the mix after he missed the first 11 games recovering from May surgery on his torn right Achilles tendon. Boldin, Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis are determined to find a way to make the defining plays against a talented Seahawks secondary — while avoiding the turnovers that have cost San Francisco dearly in its last two trips to Seattle.
The 49ers have been outscored 71-16 in the two losses. Kaepernick had a career-worst 20.1 passer rating in Week 2.
"Well, those games really don't matter at this point," Kaepernick said. "We're trying to win this game to get to where we want to be."
Boldin will do whatever it takes, even if that means trash-talking right alongside Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Co. Boldin has shown in recent weeks he can hang with the best of the chatterboxes, and he has shown he can win the big game. He was on that Ravens team last year before coming to the 49ers in a trade that sent a sixth-round draft pick to Baltimore.
"It's funny," Crabtree said of Boldin running his mouth. "It gives us a lot of energy, gives guys a lot of energy on the field. A lot of guys have energy too, but Anquan pretty much has the most energy on the team."
With a receiving corps at full strength and Frank Gore leading the running attack, expect Kaepernick to mix things up, breaking out of the pocket for big gains with his legs when the opportunity arises.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers' imposing front seven is far healthier this January than last year, when menacing defensive end Justin Smith played through a partially torn left triceps that required offseason surgery. Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey has stabilized the middle for an imposing front seven, while linebacker Ahmad Brooks has 4 1/2 sacks in two playoff wins so far.
Hitting the road again this week hasn't seemed to faze San Francisco, which won in the bitter cold of Green Bay in the wild-card round, then at Carolina last week.
"It's the playoffs, that's what everybody lives for," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "Win or go home. Regardless of where we play, we try to come out and play our hardest and try to extend our season."
Now, it will be all about communicating in the deafening noise.
Sure, it's a change from the path this group took to the Super Bowl last season — no games at Candlestick Park — but this team has embraced the added challenge.
It starts with No. 7, Kaepernick.
"Just noticed it watching him play even going back to college when I first started watching him play, the big games, the big challenge, the big task," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He has that special ability that the great ones have to elevate their game in those situations."