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NFL: Colin Kaepernick finds his form as the San Francisco 49ers get a second chance

Last season's Super Bowl runners-up are aiming to go one better this year

Not many teams get a second chance to win a Super Bowl. The most recent losers to return to the NFL's end-of-season decider were the Buffalo Bills in 1994. But the San Francisco 49ers could buck that trend.

The sense of anti-climax, a tough schedule the following season, a low draft ranking – many factors count against Super Bowl runners-up. And the class of 2013 also had the mortification of being the first San Francisco team in six Super Bowl visits to leave the field without the Vince Lombardi Trophy. None of which, though, seems to have mattered to this 49ers squad.

They have already done better than last season's winners, the Baltimore Ravens, who failed to make the play-offs.

In that Super Bowl in New Orleans, the 49ers launched a late rally that fell just short of delivering victory, and they have come back again this season from losing two of their first three games and suffering a two-game mid-season wobble. Their 12-4 won-lost record would have normally have been good enough to win their NFC West division but for a dominating performance from the 13-3 Seattle Seahawks.

Today, they play away to the Carolina Panthers in the divisional play-off round after coming through the extreme polar weather in last Sunday's wild-card game win in Green Bay, where they beat the home-town Packers 23-20 with a last-gasp field goal. The 49ers have won their last seven games and are regarded as favourites to beat Carolina.

The 49ers have kept their key performers such as self-styled 'cold killer', linebacker Patrick Willis, his defensive partner NaVorro Bowman, running back Frank Gore and maturing quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick was the 36th pick in the 2011 draft after a college career at the unfashionable University of Nevada, and was the back-up last season when an injury to starter Alex Smith gave him a chance that he took with both hands and legs, showing an ability to run with the ball as well as throw it.

Nevertheless, he had started only seven professional games before this season and he struggled early on, with seven turnovers in his first four games, and an unimpressive pass-completion rate.

But he has rediscovered last season's play-off form, and head coach Jim Harbaugh backs him to adjust to today's forecast rain after mastering last weekend's tundra conditions. "He just looked like he was running and having fun like he was the only one on the field, and he can throw a ball through the elements, the wind," Harbaugh said. "In the rain, bad weather, footing, or elements of precipitation, he can pierce a defense."

One of the 49ers' four regular-season defeats was against today's opponents at Candlestick Park. "We owe them," said Kaepernick.