How about that for a weekend of football? It looked as though each road team would come away victorious until the Chiefs snatched the win in the final seconds from the Bills.
The 49ers did not disappoint against the Packers. The cold weather affected the offense’s play, while the defense looked as they usually do, and the special teams, of all units, were the difference in the game.
Here are the best quotes from the postgame from Kyle Shanahan and the players.
Jordan Willis gets the game ball
The 49ers became the first team since the 1989 Houston Oilers to block a field goal attempt and a punt in the same game. Willis’ block was the first of his career, and by any member of the 49ers in the postseason since running back, Spencer Tillman accomplished the feat in 1990 against the Vikings. It was also the first time the Niners had returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in the postseason in franchise history.
Kyle Shanahan said he gave out one game ball, and it was to Willis, but added that he could have given one to a bunch of players. Willis chopped the lineman’s hand down on the field goal block, allowing Jimmie Ward to come in free:
Oh that was brilliant !!!!— Will Blackmon (@WillBlackmon) January 23, 2022
He chopped the post hand so
Jimmy Ward can jump through.
The timing has to be precise for this to work! pic.twitter.com/8oRqVuhFQa
Then, on the blocked punt, he made the Packers long-snapper look like a peewee football player:
Remember, Willis suffered a high-ankle sprain the week before. He had no business playing in this game. So, sure enough, he was the hero.
Everyone gave Willis a shoutout. Nick Bosa said he loves Willis and that he’s a misunderstood character in the locker room. Ward, after talking about giving up the big play before the end of the half, went out of his way to shout Willis out:
Teams who aren’t playing for themselves generally have the fortune of good luck. Down the stretch, this certainly applies to the 49ers.
Jimmy says the team never wavered
Jimmy Garoppolo said, “even when they had the lead, I felt like we were in control of the game.” Even after the offense failed to convert on fourth down, Garoppolo said there was still a sense of calmness that the Niners would win.
When your quarterback isn’t flustered on the sideline and is cool, calm, and collective, that rubs off on the rest of your players. Arik Armstead, Ward, Bosa, and George Kittle all spoke about how Garoppolo’s demeanor positively impacted the rest of the team.
I think, and I’ll have more on this later, that I’ve figured out Garoppolo. It took a few years, but we finally got here. He’s unflappable, which is one of the best compliments you can give to a quarterback.
Garoppolo has the highest fourth-quarter comeback opportunity percentage among any active quarterback. Better than Brady, Mahomes, Allen, anybody, at 52%. Only Brady has a higher percentage once you include game-winning drives.
When you know your signal-caller comes through in the clutch, it’s easy to “stay the course.”
Defense does it again
It doesn’t hurt to have a dominant defense. I asked Deebo Samuel if the level of confidence is aided cause the team knows how well the defense is playing:
“Of course. Look at the guys we have on defense. All 11 guys are amazing.”
Fred Warner called DeMeco Ryans one of the brightest football minds he’s ever been around. Ward said Ryans made some calls that left Aaron Rodgers confused, which is why the team had so much success.
Something that Ryans is doing is different. With a good chuckle, Shanahan said, “he just started trying harder.”
Having great players helps. Warner, who got steamrolled on one run early in the game, played one of if not his best game of the season. Bosa made plays. Bosa also called Armstead “one of the best players in the league.” Armstead continued his dominance as an interior player. Continuity helps, too.
Early season losses paid off
Kittle said, “the resiliency that this team has is incredible.” When you go through each game and think about everything this team has endured, it’s a minor miracle they’re four quarters away from an opportunity to win the Super Bowl.
Against a Seahawks and Cardinals team that was not good — throw the records out in a divisional game, but that doesn’t excuse the talent mismatch — San Francisco looked average, at best.
This is the same team that blew double-digit halftime leads to Carson Wentz and Ryan Tannehill. The same team that used the regular season to gel and have Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers look out of sorts.
Shanahan believes those early season losses shaped the team:
“I always try to say that you don’t label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ You just want to learn from some things that you think are bad that can make you good later.
Right now, it’s looking pretty good because some of the stuff we went through this year that I don’t ever want to happen, but I think that’s made who we are and that’s why we’re the team we are right now, and that’s why we’re still standing.”
I wouldn’t argue against anybody who said the 49ers haven’t earned the right to do this, but this regular season for the Niners feels a lot like Tampa Bay’s last year with Tom Brady. A veteran team that used the regular season to figure out lineups, learn how to play through injuries and adversity, have a few brutal late-season losses but remain unfazed.
Tampa Bay lost to the Texans and the Falcons in the final two games. had a minor scare from Washington in the first round. San Francisco would rather take their “scares” to the extreme, so the Cowboys game came down to the final seconds.
In the Divisional Round, they beat the Saints 30-20. The Bucs special teams and defense dominated that game, too. Although their special teams' touchdown was negated by an illegal block, that drive led to a field goal, as did a long punt return.
Antoine Winfield Jr., just as Fred Warner did, forced a fumble that flipped the field position of the game — just because the turnover didn’t lead to points doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact on the rest of the game.
Brady threw for 199 yards, yet the team scored 30 points. You have to learn how to win in different ways. The 49ers did during the regular season. The Packers did not.
That Bucs team’s journey to the Super Bowl last season has far more similarities than the Niners in ‘19. Armstead and Warner spoke about the difference in being in the underdog role as opposed to being the top dog:
“It’s completely different. I was talking to some of my teammates about how easy it was. We just ran through people and got to the Super Bowl. This is a different road with a lot of adversity, but I think it’s making it even more special.”
“It is very rewarding when you’re the underdog and you come in and you take it from somebody.”
Armstead’s honesty about 2019 was refreshing because it did look easy. In 8 games the 49ers scored over 30 points and only three times they scored fewer than three touchdowns — two of those games were in torrential downpours. That’s not real life or sustainable. Those teams come along a couple of times in a decade in the NFL.
This version of the 49ers is how the NFL usually looks. Although the Niners' journey to the NFC Championship came with the maximum amount of turbulence, they should be celebrated for finding every different way to win imaginable.
Onto the Rams, where some are worried about the cliche thrown around how it’s difficult to beat a team three times in one year. ESPN’s Nick Wagoner had a great stat: Since the 1970 merger, there have been 22 previous instances of a team going 2-0 in the regular season and then meeting a third time in the playoffs. The team that won the first two games is 14-8 in the playoff meeting.