I won’t fault you if you’re still processing what happened Saturday night. The 49ers looked dead in the water for much of the game as they blew two red-zone chances and failed to score an offensive touchdown.
In temperatures flirting with negative degrees, the offense couldn’t muster a consistent drive. It’s a team sport, though. There are three phases of the game, and San Francisco dominated in two. That’s why they won and are onto the NFC Championship.
It’s easy to focus on the mistakes such as the drops, failed fourth down, interception, and the opening touchdown drive the defense allowed. The 49ers converted two third downs that were longer than one yard — both coming in the fourth quarter. But you don’t beat Aaron Rodgers on the road in the playoffs on accident.
That’s why there are no “losers” today.
Winners - Arik Armstead
Armstead has six sacks over his last four games. Five of them have come on third down, with two against the Packers in the fourth quarter Saturday night. Armstead’s first sack forced a field goal while his second backed the Packers up before the blocked punt for a touchdown.
The Packers only had one rush that went for double-digits and only averaged 3.4 yards per carry. The defense made them one-dimensional, and Armstead’s run defense was a big reason why.
He’s been listed as a winner seemingly every week for the past couple of months — right around the time he moved inside and started playing defensive tackle full-time. It’s not hyperbole to say Armstead changed the ceiling of this defense and has been a top-5 interior defensive lineman.
Warner reminded us why he received a lucrative contract this past offseason and why he’s the best linebacker in the NFL Saturday. Warner finished with six tackles and a tackle for loss. His box score isn’t going to wow you.
The Packers were marching and crossed midfield with just under four minutes to play in the first quarter. If Green Bay scores there, we’re talking about the offseason today. Warner closes quickly on Packers’ tight end, Marcedes Lewis, and forces a fumble to give the Niners a short field.
After that fumble, Rodgers and the offense went three-and-out two drives in a row and only gained 16 on their third drive before the blocked field goal to end the half.
Before Warner’s fumble, the 49ers gave up eight first downs. After the fumble, the Niners gave up six first downs. Warner set the tone and changed the outcome of the game.
He was outstanding as always in coverage while being his usual self as a vocal leader on the sideline. The team captains in Armstead and Warner came to play.
Willis bull-rushed the long-snapper back about six or seven yards before he realized what was happening. You rarely see that at any level of football, let alone the NFL. “The block” saved the 49ers season.
That wasn’t even the first game-changing play Willis made on special teams. Before the end of the first half, Willis chopped the hand down of a blocker, which freed up Jimmie Ward to block the field goal. In a team sport where you need role players to step up weekly, Willis was Johnny on the spot for San Francisco.
Garoppolo threw an interception that you could see unfolding as the play happening, and you knew he wasn’t going to have enough on the throw to make it to George Kittle. In the press box, he also had two or three other throws that had Mr. 49er himself, Matt Maiocco, wondering what Garoppolo was thinking as they were near interceptions had the Packers defenders played the ball.
That can be true while acknowledging the plays the wideouts left on the field. For example, on the game’s second drive, at the 47, he hits Brandon Aiyuk in stride, but Aiyuk fumbles and the 49ers never cross midfield.
Kyle Shanahan was adamant that Kittle’s early drop in the game would have been a touchdown. On the next play, on 3rd & 11, the Packers blitz, and Jimmy hands in the pocket and delivers a perfectly thrown ball to Jauan Jennings, who was late to pick the throw up, which resulted in an incompletion. That’s three first downs off the board.
On the drive where Jimmy threw an interception, he throws a money ball to Kittle along the sideline between two defenders for 15 yards on 2nd & 10. Garoppolo also showed some creativity when nobody was open, and he scrambled before shoveling a pass to Kyle Juszczyk.
Then, at the end of the game, when you had to keep the ball out of Rodgers’ hands to ensure he doesn’t touch the ball again with 3:20 to play, Garoppolo finds the usual suspects and gets the offense into Robbie Gould’s range.
Aaron Rodgers posted his worst career playoff quarterback rating at 19.3. Rodgers averaged 4.8 air yards on completions, his second-lowest during his playoff career. Rodgers didn't throw a touchdown for the second time in his playoff career. The 49ers’ five sacks were the most times any team has ever sacked Rodgers in the playoffs.
The Packers’ offense was viewed as one of if not the best in the league, and they only generated a first down 25% of the time with a success rate 9% below league average. Rodgers was missing open receivers and looked flustered. Green Bay couldn’t run the ball, either.
Aaron Jones had the long 75-yard play on a coverage bust. Davante Adams had nine receptions for 90 yards, with the majority of that coming early. Other than that, the only other player on the stat sheet was Allen Lazard, with one reception for six yards.
This performance from Ryans will be at the top of his resume.
The Packers’ special teams’ coach made Hightower look like Bill Belichick. A blocked punt for a touchdown. A blocked field goal before the end of the half. The 49ers’ field goal to start the third quarter isn’t happening without Deebo Samuel’s 45-yard kick return.
Robbie Gould nailed all three of his kicks, and Mitch Wishnowsky punted well in poor conditions, including a 52-yard punt with two landing inside of. Green Bay’s 20.
Give credit when it’s due, and Hightower deserves it for how the special teams unit looked against the Packers. The players spoke about how both blocks were schemed up during the week.
There were a lot of unsung heroes in this game. Dontae Johnson was getting picked on during the first drive. We didn’t really hear his name called after. Josh Norman came in cold off the bench and played the back-shoulder fade against Adams about as well as you can.
Dre Greenlaw played 54 snaps compared to just 14 for Azeez Al-Shaair. Greenlaw’s energy and selflessness to take on blocks that allow Warner to come clean cannot be understated. Greenlaw also recovered the fumble.
Talanoa Hufanaga and Norman were the two defensive backs deep on a final third down where Rodgers was trying to throw a post route to Adams. Both had perfect coverage.
The two rookies, Trey Lance and Aaron Banks, were the only players in uniform that didn’t step onto the field. This was an all-hands-on-deck situation. Willis actually played more defensive snaps (18) than any other defensive lineman off the bench.
I didn’t list Deebo Samuel or Nick Bosa because we’ve come to expect greatness from them. Saturday night was the definition of a team win.