How 49ers' defense 'confused' Aaron Rodgers en route to stunning win

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How 49ers' defense 'confused' Rodgers, silenced Packers' offense originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- For the second time in three seasons, the 49ers canceled Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl plans.

Saturday's 13-10 NFC divisional-round win at Lambeau Field differed from the 37-20 mauling the 49ers handed the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. This one, played in freezing temperatures at the NFL's mecca, wasn't won on the back of a bruising running game or coach Kyle Shanahan's genius.

This one was all about the 49ers' defense silencing Rodgers, the NFL's likely MVP, in a way that seemed unthinkable after a surgical opening drive that saw the Packers go 69 yards and not face a third down.

That's when linebacker Fred Warner huddled the defense to deliver a message.

"I'm not going to lie, I was pretty upset," Warner said after the win which sent the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game. "Everyone was going around saying, 'We're good, we're good.' I just kind of try and light a fire under everybody and let them know [the Packers] are not better than us. We needed to buckle down and dial in.

"They are a great offense but I know we're a great defense, too. So, I thought that was unacceptable for sure."

The Packers' second drive started out much like the first as Green Bay picked up gains of 7, 14 and 9 to move quickly into San Francisco territory. Facing an early knockout blow, Warner led by example and made an early game-changing play.

On first-and-10 at the 49ers' 42-yard line, Rodgers threw a short pass to tight end Mercedes Lewis out in the left flat. Warner read the play from snap and crushed Lewis, jarring the ball loose. Dre Greenlaw recovered the fumble and the 49ers' divisional-round fate was stabilized.

From that moment on, the 49ers' defense was a riddle Rodgers, Davante Adams and the Packers' vaunted offense couldn't solve.

The 49ers held the Packers to 4.9 yards per play, 5.8 yards per pass and sacked Rodgers five times. The easy pitch-and-catch throws to Adams that were there on the first drive evaporated and never reappeared.

And as the snow fell at Lambeau Field, so too fell the reigning MVP and presumptive Super Bowl favorites.

"DeMeco called some great calls, and we was disguising them pretty well and we confused him," safety Jimmie Ward said of the 49ers' success at throwing Rodgers off his rhythm.

Ryans' defense flustered Rodgers all night, keeping Green Bay within arm's length and setting the stage for Jordan Willis' game-changing blocked punt which Talanoa Hufanga scooped up and ran into the end zone to tie the game at 10 with under five minutes to play.

Hufanga's touchdown silenced a rabid Lambeau crowd of over 79,000, most of whom were dressed in their finest ice fishing gear hoping Rodgers had one last rabbit to pull out his hat.

With the momentum pendulum finally swung back in their direction and the air sucked out Lambeau Field, Ward and the 49ers' defense took the field with 4:41 left knowing that one more stop could be all that stands between them and the next step in their improbable redemptive arc.

The last time the 49ers' defense needed a stop of this magnitude and against this caliber of opponent, they collapsed in Miami Gardens as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win Super Bowl LIV.

Most would think a collapse that happened 24 months prior would have been flushed long ago. But that bad taste still lingers.

"Just finish," Ward said after the game about the 49ers' mentality. "We still getting haunted by the Super Bowl -- 2019, the last six minutes and we lost the game. Coach Kyle put a big emphasis on finishing [this season]."

This time, Ward and the 49ers didn't fold. The ghosts of the 2019 run didn't show up at Lambeau Field on Saturday night.

On third-and-11, Rodgers dropped back and took a shot deep down the middle of the field toward a double-covered Adams. It was indicative of the night for Rodgers and the Packers' offense after their opening drive. Nothing came easy, even when it appeared they had the 49ers outflanked.

In the end, Rodgers could only hoist a prayer deep into the Green Bay night and hope his all-world receiver could make an improbable catch. It was proof the 49ers' defense, a unit maligned early in the season and one Rodgers put up 30 points on four months ago, had flummoxed and broken the star quarterback who famously said he'd make the 49ers regret not drafting him.

Adams couldn't do the unthinkable. There was no highlight-reel catch. Instead, Rodgers' potential last pass as a Packer slammed to the frozen Lambeau turf, and the quarterback sulked off to the sidelines, hoping his defense would give him one more chance.

One that never came.

The 49ers went 44 yards in nine plays and bled out the final 3:20, with Robbie Gould drilling a game-winning 45-yard field goal to send the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game and thrust Rodgers into an uncertain offseason much earlier than he anticipated.

RELATED: Rodgers 'numb' after loss to 49ers

As the snow continued to flutter down and the temperature kept dropping, the once embattled 49ers didn't want to leave the frozen field in which they had achieved the borderline unthinkable.

These 49ers, the ones who started 3-5 and needed to erase a 17-point Week 18 deficit just to get into the playoffs, had just suffocated Rodgers and the Packers' offense, upsetting the No. 1 overall seed in a way few, if any, saw coming.

When the 49ers finally exited Lambeau, the sight of their miraculous victory was fully covered in an icy white sheet, as if the football gods themselves had closed up the hallowed grounds after a win that no one, not even the NFC title game-bound 49ers, fully grasped.

"We come into Lambeau against the No. 1 seed in the NFC, snowing, MVP quarterback, one of the best receivers playing the game, high-powered offense and we held to 10 points. That's incredible," Warner said. "Especially with the way it started. That's really, it's one of those things I'll remember forever.

For sure. It's one of those things I don't think everyone understands the gravity of it now. But it's something we will look back on."

The thing about shocking the world is, you don’t realize it until long after the moment has passed.

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