SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The clock's running out, it's raining, Tebow Samuel is injured and the Green Bay Packers are just a couple of plays away from a monument to Brock Purdy and you need to know who's taking over for the San Francisco 49ers. Playoff upset?
Do you want to know who entrusted the 49ers with fighting through their game-long struggles? Who devised all possible outcomes? That would be Purdy and every other member of the 49ers, who held this spot through one of the most confusing performances of the season.
They got the ball back with 6:13 left after the Packers missed a field-goal. They trailed the 49ers by four points. They needed a touchdown. They knew it was their last realistic chance to figure out how to avoid a horrendous loss in this divisional-round playoff game. So when the offense took hold, Trent Williams gave a pep talk.
“I told them, 'Hey, man, there's six minutes left, this might be the last time we get the ball. If we don't do it, it'll be the last time we hang together,'” Williams recalled. Bring on. Bring on the next play, bring on the play after that, and then let the rest take care.
They all realized. The 49ers were at Levi's Stadium, set as NFC favorites to go to the Super Bowl, and they absolutely felt it. What happened next: Purdy snapped out of his funk and started completing passes, Brandon Iuk made a huge diving catch on third down, Purdy scrambled inside the Packers 10-yard line, and finally Christian McCaffrey bolted for a 6-yard touchdown. 49 ahead at last. Then Trey Greenlaw intercepted a Jordan Love miscue in the final minute to seal the 49ers' 24-21 victory.
But oh, the 49ers felt it. No one felt that more than Birdie. Almost an hour into the game, you could tell they were still feeling it – the adrenaline, the frustration of playing so chaotically in such a big game, all the importance, the relief. The 49ers saw their playoff career unfold before their eyes on Saturday…thanks to a last-gasp play, they're still alive in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 28 in Lewis, facing the winner of Sunday's Lions-Buccaneers game. .
They live. They know a little more about themselves now than they did after all the easy wins they've had this season. (But so do their enemies.)
“At some point, you're down and you've got to find a way out,” Purdy said. “It's the fourth quarter, it's the NFL. Obviously, we're in the postseason now. We were all like, OK, this is it. This is our season. It was huge for us to take advantage of it. All of us.
“Obviously I'm a quarterback, and that's confidence and all that's good. But we've got a lot of good players on this team, a lot of difference-makers. We've got a great defense. It's not OK for us to not get our way. So to finally play a game like this and pull it out is for all of us. It was huge.
Nick Bosa flat-out said the 49ers needed a game like this, noting that they lost all the close games and won all the blowouts this regular season. More than anyone, Birdie needed something like this. Of course, the 49ers don't want to see Birdy falter for three quarters like he did Saturday. The 49ers never wanted to play like the Packers outplayed them for most of this game.
But the 49ers also had to watch Purdy rise up from a struggle and deliver. They needed him not to be a great pioneer. Digging out of a hole, he needed to win this dang game, and he went 6-for-7 on that last drive, staying very calm (“He was Brock, couldn't say anything,” Williams said of the moment) and the 49ers' passing yards this season. Like the guy who broke the single-season record and led the NFL in passer rating.
What in the world happened to Birdie in this game before that? The rain, of course, caused him some problems, as wet weather in Cleveland earlier this season bothered him. At some point Saturday, Purdy sprained his right arm.
“Obviously, I put on a glove for the first drive,” Purdy said. “It was coming in drizzle, so I took it off. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I'm tired of gloves. … Yeah, there were times when the ball was a little wet from the grass and I backed off. Affected some accuracy and materials. But that's football. I want to be better than that.
49ers beat Packers, rain and their own mistakes: 'It's a gut check for everyone'
However, if it's dry at Levi's next Sunday, it won't be an issue if the 49ers make it to the Super Bowl at Las Vegas' indoor Allegiant Stadium in February.
Purdy added that the Packers' defense cut off his deep options and forced him to go for his check. Then Purdy spent most of the game rushing those checkdowns, often incomplete. Also, while the Packers only recorded one sack in the game, the pass rush bothered Purdy — changing his throwing lanes and moving his feet as he threw, leading to two wild passes that the Packers could have easily made. Intercepted but abandoned.
That could be a troubling issue for the 49ers over the next few weeks, as Purdy also looked very uncomfortable against the Ravens on Christmas, and the Ravens could be the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl. But during that last run, Purdy sounded like he had resolved something in his head; If they're begging you to take the easy pass, if the easy pass gets you down the field, take the easy pass. Don't let previous mistakes confuse you when they are most important.
“We put what we wanted in front of us, so you have to wipe the slate clean,” Purdy said. “You've got to have a pure mind, don't try to force anything. Take what's safe. Find a way, man.
On that last drive, Purdy completed short passes there, then zipped a crucial 17-yard route to Chris Conley. His only completion of the series came when George Kittle, the 49ers' top offensive player and 81-yard receiving yardage overall, dropped another short one and followed it up with a birdie dart in the second quarter, chipping in a 32-yard TD. Third down to Ayuk.
“The whole day was a little off,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But the guys stuck with it. Even with that second-and-6 at the end, that down got us to third-and-6 and then BA made a terrific play to keep us on the field.
Another possible reason for the 49ers' flat offensive play: a two-week layoff, a meaningless loss to the Rams in Week 18 and several other top players, and last weekend's exit.
“I don't know, it could have been,” Shanahan said. “Could have been rain, could have been good defense. But those are the things you have to talk about. We dealt with it as best we could.
Birdie, who was 23-of-39 for 252 yards and 1 TD with an 86.7 passer rating, was certainly not a struggling 49er in this game. The defense suffered through a few slips and misses against Love and his receivers and gave up a huge 53-yard run to Aaron Jones. The 49ers' special teams were also successful — the coverage unit returned a 73-yard kickoff return to Kayson Nixon and Jake Moody deflected a 48-yard field-goal attempt at the line.
But the defense returned Greenlaw's game-sealing interception, and another earlier, and stopped Green Bay multiple times in the red zone. And Moody made up for his earlier mistake early in the fourth quarter with a clutch 52-yarder that brought the 49ers within 21-17.
“It's not perfect by any means,” Shanahan said. “I'm very disappointed but very proud that we're playing another week.
Quite frankly, the 49ers played a playoff game where a team would normally be eliminated. Had the 49ers and Purdy lost this game there would have been heavy criticism throughout the NFL. The 49ers and Purdy knew all that, and they entered the crowd as the clock wound down. There was a season to save. Maybe two games left to play now.
Trey Greenlaw won't go down, and the 49ers won't thank him
(Top photo of Brock Birdie: Theron W. Henderson/Getty Images)