Opinion: 49ers stunned everyone but themselves by outlasting the Packers in playoff upset

·7 min read

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Throughout the disaster of a first quarter and darn near as frustrating second and third quarters of the San Francisco 49ers' divisional playoff showdown with the Green Bay Packers, despite all the miscues, challenges and shortcomings, Jimmy Garoppolo swears he noticed an unmistakable and unshakable calm.

Sure, defensive tone-setter Fred Warner had laid into teammates after they let the Packers cruise downfield to score a game-opening touchdown. There were groans of frustration as the usually sure-handed George Kittle dropped a would-be touchdown pass.

Sure, blood pressures rose as the first quarter concluded with San Francisco’s yardage total standing at negative-7. And Garoppolo definitely beat himself up for a second-quarter interception at the opposing 4-yard line.

But that sense of calm permeated the 49ers sideline throughout the struggles as well as in the locker room at halftime, and it persisted in the second half, even after San Francisco got stopped on fourth down deep in Green Bay territory with six minutes left to play.

So, when yet another elimination game concluded with San Francisco having prevailed – this time by a score of 13-10 thanks to a fourth-quarter blocked punt returned for a touchdown, repeated defensive stands and a 45-yard Robbie Gould field goal with time expiring – to advance its second NFC championship in three years, it all made sense. It just felt right.

Adversity and high-pressure situations had served as the theme of San Francisco's regular season. So why should the postseason have played out any differently, Garoppolo and his teammates surmised. They had erased deficits before, they could do it again.

“There was a calmness, honestly,” Garoppolo said. “Probably midway through the first or second (quarter) that I realized it was going to be that type of game. … I think it comes from, we’ve won late in games, and in different ways too. Especially over the last couple weeks prior to this. We find ways, whether it’s running, passing, defense stepping up big, special teams today. That’s what makes a good football team, and that’s what we are.”

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San Francisco 49ers kicker Robbie Gould (9) celebrates with teammate after kicking the game winning field goal during a NFC Divisional playoff football game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
San Francisco 49ers kicker Robbie Gould (9) celebrates with teammate after kicking the game winning field goal during a NFC Divisional playoff football game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

Battle-tested is a term some 49ers used to describe themselves after overcoming challenges encountered the last two seasons.

Injuries derailed their 2020 campaign. This season, more injuries and poor play led to an early four-game losing streak that threatened postseason hopes. But the 49ers managed to power through and force their way into the playoffs after winning seven of their last nine games.

So, Saturday night, they refused to allow a rocky start to this playoff meeting with the top-seeded Packers to whip them into panic mode.

Instead, the 49ers drew on the experiences of the regular season and kept clawing. A relentless defensive showing, heroic contributions on special teams and persistence on offense added up to a fourth-quarter comeback, game-winning field goal and an upcoming date with the winner of Sunday’s Rams-Buccaneers tilt.

And now, here the Niners find themselves, one more win away from a return to the Super Bowl. This year’s journey has played out far differently than in 2019, when San Francisco owned the top seed in the NFC and outscored opponents by an average of 30-19.

This 49ers team has only defeated opponents by only an average of four points per contest. It endured stretches in which the offense was awful on third down, the defense struggled to generate takeaways, and the special teams units failed to play up to their own standards.

But it’s the way a team ends the season that matters most, and so, many 49ers players believe this squad is more resilient than the 2019 version. They view the journey of this season as more gratifying, despite the more frequent trials and tribulations. And they view themselves as more mature, and more capable of ultimately completing a Super Bowl run.

“It’s completely different. I was talking to some of my teammates about how easy that year was,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “We just ran through people and got to the Super Bowl, but this is a different road – a lot more adversity, but I think it’s making it more special. The seed we got and having to be on the road for these games, and finding ways to win on the road, it’s definitely been special to be a part of.”

Throughout the 49ers’ rebound this season, including the comeback from down 17 points to the Rams to win and clinch a playoff berth and last week’s upset of the Dallas Cowboys, coaches and team leaders have placed a strong emphasis on doing the little things necessary to finish games.

That’s because the final six minutes and 13 seconds of Super Bowl 54 still remains etched in their memory. In that game, the 49ers held a 10-point lead over the Kansas City Chiefs and needed only to hang on for less than half a quarter, and they would have earned their first Super Bowl victory since 1994.

But instead came a collapse that saw the offense go cold, and the defense surrendered 21 unanswered points to Patrick Mahomes and Co. and lost.

“We’re still getting haunted by the Super Bowl in 2019. Last six minutes lost the game, so coach Kyle (Shanahan) places a strong emphasis on finishing the game,” safety Jimmie Ward, who blocked the second-quarter field goal, confessed. “All about the finish.”

He further explained that the emphasis on finishing games began back in the spring and has continued.

“It comes from OTAs, comes from camp, comes from practice, comes from coach Kyle and how hard we practice and never quitting,” Ward said.

The 49ers certainly did not quit Saturday.

After surrendering the score on that game-opening drive, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryan’s unit recorded a fumble recovery on the next Packers possession and then forced three straight punts and blocked a field goal to end the first half. Then, after San Francisco held Green Bay to a punt and field goal, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower’s unit came through again by blocking a punt, which safety Talanoa Hufanga returned 6 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 10-10 with 4:41 left.

One more defensive stand followed, and then an offense that had struggled to move the ball all game – and even got denied on fourth-and-1 deep in Green Bay territory with 6:10 left – marched 44 yards and into field goal range, where Gould nailed a 45-yarder in the snow as time expired.

Although jubilant, the 49ers weren’t the least bit surprised by the victory because they never felt like they were out of the game.

“This team has been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Kittle said. “We’ve dealt with a lot. We’ve lost games by making mistakes. We’ve won games dirty. This is a gritty team. It’s a salty team and we just keep bouncing back. We don’t let anything freak us out. … I don’t want to say we don’t flinch, but we stay calm. We trust in each other, trust of coaches. ”

The 49ers now will face either the defending champion Buccaneers or division-rival Rams in next week’s NFC championship game. Given the unpredictable nature of this postseason -- with both conference’s No. 1 seeds (Green Bay and Tennessee) getting upset on Saturday -- San Francisco seemingly has as good a shot as any to reach the Super Bowl.

It may not always look the prettiest, but the end result has been there. And that’s all that matters.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How San Francisco 49ers pulled off an all-time stunning playoff upset