(Reuters) - Colin Kaepernick has earned his third consecutive start at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, leaving incumbent and former top draft pick Alex Smith on the sideline, the National Football League team said on Wednesday.
Since replacing Smith, who is healthy enough to start after suffering a concussion in a November 11 game, Kaepernick has earned wins in his first two starts and will seek his third in Sunday's road game against the St. Louis Rams (4-6).
"We have two quarterbacks we feel great about," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters. "Both have earned it. Both deserve it. ... What tips the scale, Colin has the hot hand, and we're going with Colin."
Stability at quarterback is usually a hallmark of winning teams, but the NFC West-leading 49ers (8-2-1) have decided, at least for now, to go with the upside offered by the strong-armed Kaepernick, who is also a running threat.
Smith, considered a bust in his early years after being the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, taken 23 places ahead of future Packers standout Aaron Rodgers, steered the Niners to the NFC title game last season.
This season, Smith led San Francisco to a 6-2-1 record with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions before being sidelined by a concussion during a 21-21 tie against the Rams.
Second-year quarterback Kaepernick took over and led San Francisco to a 32-7 thumping of the Chicago Bears and followed that with a 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
With a strong running game and a ferocious defense, the Niners have outscored opponents this season by 121 points, the biggest points differential in the NFC.
"We'll worry about everything and fear nothing," Harbaugh said when asked about scenarios in which Smith could play again.
Asked how Smith handled the decision, Harbaugh said: "Alex is a class act all the way. He'll prepare as he is the starter. And that's what we would expect. And be ready to go in and play and contribute to this football team."
Asked if Kaepernick was the starter moving forward or just for this week's game.
"I wouldn't assume anything," said Harbaugh.
Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue