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Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

49ers survive the monsoon, clinch NFC title game berth

Jan 20, 2024 at 9:24 PM

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San Francisco 24, Green Bay Packers 21.

Pick your hearts up off the floor, 49ers Faithful. Clamp your jaws back in place, wipe the sweat from your brow, and warm yourself by the fire after having your soul soaked and wrung like a small towel.

The 49ers won.

San Francisco is now 1-30 under Kyle Shanahan when trailing by 7+ points in the 4th quarter. They did it without Deebo Samuel, whose first-quarter injury cast a pall over the game, a gloom matched only by the murky downpour that stifled the Niners at every turn. They did it without a single sack from their vaunted defensive line, freshly reinforced by interior stalwart Arik Armstead. They did it needing to stop the hottest quarterback on the planet after their own turned in his ugliest performance since Christmas. But they did it.

It almost feels sacrilegious to discuss the highlights of a game that felt less like football than a bareknuckle brawl in a waist-deep morass. But at the end of the day, the 49ers were the team with the guts and resilience to pull out the win. Brock Purdy hit George Kittle for a long, arcing touchdown pass that dispelled the rain for a few precious moments. Christian McCaffrey, the focal point of the Niners' offense once Samuel went down, chugged along for 128 yards on 24 total touches (17 rushes, 7 receptions), and Dre Greenlaw hauled in two key interceptions and nearly 30 full seconds of circus-route returns between the two that had 49ers fans screaming, "Get down already!"

Oh, and kicker Jake Moody redeemed his blocked 48-yard field goal at the end of the first half with a crucial 52-yarder early in the fourth that cut the Packers' lead to 4. Despite his rocky conclusion to the regular season, the amplified pressure of the comeback, and the curtains of rain that separated San Francisco from the NFC Championship Game, Moody was as clutch as clutch gets with a solid make on that field goal and another late extra point.

Still, the majority of the game was as ugly as it was wet. San Francisco entered halftime with a 7-6 lead, but losing the time-of-possession game by nearly 4 minutes. Their only saving grace was that the Packers, despite three red zone trips, came away with a mere 6 points off of two field goals and a failed 4th-down QB sneak. Green Bay possessed the ball for only three times in the first two quarters (excluding a last-second kneel-down into the halftime), but averaged a cool 60 yards per drive.

The weather played into San Francisco's defensive woes, certainly. But at the end of the day, it's unacceptable for a Super Bowl contender to have more sideline shots of mass shoe swaps than sacks on the day. Coverage busts plagued the Niners secondary, including a pair of stumbles by All-Pro Charvarius Ward that led to long catches and a pair of deep DPI's called on Ambry Thomas. 10 receivers caught the ball for Green Bay, a testament to the defensive line's inability to convert pressures on Love. Nick Bosa was essentially the only one to even get a hand on the rookie QB, recording 5 QB hits. Javon Kinlaw was the runner-up, with 1. No 49ers defender registered another. And Fred Warner might have been the most dominant player on the field today, but even he couldn't stop Packers RB Aaron Jones from being the first 100-yard rusher against San Francisco in over 50 games.

Even then, it's hard to put the near-heartbreak on them. Brock Purdy was the primary culprit, and his kryptonite is as clear as throwing deep across your body is unwise: he can't throw the ball in the rain. No matter what he did - bare hands, gloves, wiping his butt mid-dropback - Purdy was barely able to throw past the line of scrimmage unless the rain abated on that play. His overall stat line (23-39, 252 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) doesn't accurately describe how cringe-worthy his throws were. Blame the receivers somewhat for 4 drops in the first three quarters, but they also bailed him out a couple times with incredible catches late in the game, and Purdy threw directly at Packers defenders multiple times. This isn't who Purdy "truly is" as an NFL quarterback. But if Santa Clara faces the same inclement weather in next week's NFC Championship Game, this issue will be incredibly real. And it likely won't turn out as favorably as it did this time.

Lastly, special teams must be addressed. Jake Moody saved the unit with his clutch kicks late, but the rest of the unit leaked like a sieve throughout the contest. An incomplete list of foibles from that unit includes...

  • Kick returns of 24 and 73 yards
  • A low field goal kick at the end of the first half blocked by a Packers lineman
  • Only 2 of 4 punts downed within the Packers' 25 yard line
  • Average Green Bay field position after kickoffs (including touchbacks): 36 yard line
  • Not forcing a Green Bay punt until the 4th quarter

The wobbly special teams play felt worse in real-time after a 23 yard punt return by Ray-Ray McCloud was called back halfway through the third quarter. That represented San Francisco's 5th penalty of the day, spiking their total to 78 yards. With the 49ers struggling and already down, it felt like the beginning of the end. But somehow, it was "merely" an unsportsmanlike penalty called on Trent Williams as he trotted to the huddle, the recipient of a solid acting job by Packers ?? ?? ??. Instead of falling apart, though, the team sucked up the bad break, absorbing the 15-7 deficit in the quarter and leaving us with this evergreen highlight.

On days like this, it doesn't really matter how ugly you win. Just that you do.
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