'Gritty' 49ers rally past Pack, into NFC title game

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The San Francisco 49ers simply will not go away.

The same Niners that were once 3-5 and headed for a long offseason full of questions are now headed to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.

To get there, San Francisco had to pull out the type of late-game magic that has been a hallmark of its late-season surge to the playoffs. The result was a wild 13-10 win over the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night at Lambeau Field.

The 49ers await the winner of Sunday’s NFC divisional game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams.

After a disappointing offensive performance, the Niners pieced together the drive they needed at the biggest moment, with wide receiver Deebo Samuel taking a handoff nine yards for a first down on third-and-7 at Green Bay’s 38.

Samuel’s run set up place-kicker Robbie Gould‘s winning 45-yard field goal as time expired.

“This team has been through a lot,” San Francisco tight end George Kittle said. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity. 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.”

That toughness has been on display a lot over the past couple of months. The Niners went 7-2 over their final nine games to get into the postseason. That run culminated in a 17-point comeback victory over the Rams in the final week that clinched a playoff spot.

It continued against the Dallas Cowboys last weekend, when the Niners nearly coughed up a 16-point advantage but managed to squeeze by to advance to the divisional round against the Packers.

But Green Bay presented a unique challenge, one that for most of Saturday looked like it would be too much for the 49ers to overcome. As they’ve done for most of the past 2½ months, the Niners didn’t flinch.

It has become the signature trait of a team that is not as dominant as the 2019 juggernaut but that makes up for its shortcomings with an unrelenting will to win.

“We find ways, whether it’s running, passing, defense stepping up big, special teams today,” San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “That’s what makes a good football team. That’s what we are.”

For long stretches against the Packers, that might have been up for debate. The first half was a disaster offensively, as the Niners dropped passes, allowed sacks and generally got pushed around by the well-rested Packers.

The Niners soon realized they required the most unpredictable of contributions to turn the tide. Buoyed by a dominant defensive performance in which they didn’t allow a touchdown after the first drive of the game, the Niners put the “special” in special teams to overcome the Packers.

The same 49ers special teams group that had come under fire in recent weeks for its struggles entered Saturday with the idea that it could make the difference.

During the week, head coach Kyle Shanahan and special teams coach Richard Hightower recognized that a Green Bay special teams unit that ranked 31st in efficiency, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, might offer some opportunities to change the course of the game.

“We thought our special teams had an advantage in this game,” Shanahan said. “We thought they had an opportunity to possibly win us the game. To be able to say that and to actually come to fruition and those guys pulled it off was huge for those guys and huge for our team.”

San Francisco’s special teams came up with a trio of game-altering plays, each as important as the one before it.

With a little less than five minutes remaining, the Packers had fourth-and-19 at their 12. Niners defensive end Jordan Willis, nursing a high ankle sprain, burst through the middle and blocked Corey Bojorquez‘s punt. The ball popped straight up in the air before landing near rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga, who scooped it up and raced six yards for the touchdown. Gould’s extra point tied the game at 10 with 4:41 to go.

It was the first blocked punt return for a touchdown in 49ers playoff history and the second the Packers have given up in theirs. Green Bay is the first team in at least the past 20 postseasons to have a punt and a field goal blocked in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Just before halftime, Niners safety Jimmie Ward blocked a field goal to prevent Green Bay from adding to its first-half lead of 7-0. Samuel later returned a kick 45 yards to set up Gould’s first field goal. And Gould, who has not missed a field goal (20-for-20) or an extra point (32-of-32) in his playoff career, kicked the game winner with only 10 Packers on the field.

The Niners became the first team since the 1988 Buffalo Bills to block a punt and a field goal in the same playoff game. San Francisco also became just the fourth team to win a postseason contest without an offensive touchdown since 2000.

“We struggled too [on special teams this season],” Ward said. “But that’s the area where we knew we had to win the game at. We knew how the weather was going to be, even though it was great football weather. But we knew it was going to be hard for either team to score points.”

It wasn’t too hard for the Packers to score, at least on their opening drive. After that 10-play, 69-yard drive that featured zero third downs, Niners linebacker Fred Warner lit into his teammates on the sideline.

Those words apparently resonated. The Packers mustered three points on their final nine drives, finishing with 263 total yards, as the Niners sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times and came up with a fumble recovery.

With the Niners pressuring him consistently, Rodgers averaged 4.8 air yards per completion, the second lowest in his playoff losses. Rodgers is now 0-4 against the Niners in the postseason, the most losses without a win by a starting QB against a single opponent in the playoffs since 1950.

In a season of memorable finishes, the Niners departed Green Bay late Saturday night knowing this one would be special.

“We come into Lambeau against the No. 1 seed in the NFC, it’s snowing, MVP quarterback, one of the best receivers playing the game, high-powered offense, and we hold them to 10 points,” Warner said. “It’s one of those things that we’ll remember forever, for sure. I don’t think everybody kind of knows the gravity of it now, but it’s something we’ll look back on.”

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