Four days after the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, was introduced as the next coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Three years later, Shanahan is returning to the Super Bowl, and his team did it by building a 27-0 halftime lead that was even more dominant than the one his Falcons built over the Patriots. The Niners didn’t blow this one; they instead sealed a 37-20 win in the NFC championship game—one of the most convincing victories any team has submitted this season—to secure the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl appearance.
More impressive than reaching the Super Bowl is how the 49ers did it. San Francisco did not need quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is in the middle of a five-year, $137.5 million contract, to do much on Sunday. Garoppolo threw just eight passes for six completions and 77 yards, with no pass attempts for the first 22 minutes of the second half, a span that covered 90 minutes of real time. Jerry Rice was excited to be on the sideline for this win, but he could have been under center and the 49ers would have pulled out the win. The 49ers ran the ball as well as any playoff team has in years. Running back Raheem Mostert rushed for 220 yards, the second most in a postseason game in NFL history. He also became the first running back to surpass 200 rushing yards and have four touchdowns in a playoff game. Mostert broke the 49ers’ franchise postseason rushing record before the third quarter ended.
Those gaudy totals were the result of San Francisco’s offensive line, which dominated the Packers’ defensive line and created holes so big that Mostert often got into the secondary unfettered. Midway through the first quarter and on the Packers’ 36-yard line, Shanahan called a run on third-and-8, and Mostert went essentially untouched from the line of scrimmage to the end zone to give the 49ers a 7-0 lead.
San Francisco’s receivers got in on the block party. Two 49ers possessions after Mostert’s first touchdown, San Francisco was up 10-0 on the Packers’ 9-yard line. Mostert took a handoff and darted left, stiff-armed linebacker Blake Martinez, and then followed a thunderous block from receiver Deebo Samuel into the end zone for a touchdown.
Mostert had 5.6 yards per attempt this regular season, the highest number among qualified running backs and second among players only to Lamar Jackson. Through three quarters on Sunday, Mostert had 19 carries for 196 yards (10.3 yards per attempt), almost doubling his yards-per-carry figure. The 49ers were second to the Ravens with 144.1 rushing yards per game, but the 49ers nearly doubled that mark in this game with 285 rushing yards, tied for the most for any game in the 2019 season and the sixth most in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era.
While the 49ers offense was revving, the Packers offense was stalling. Here is what Green Bay’s offense did in its six first-half drives.
- Punt (five plays, 25 yards)
- Punt (five plays, 4 yards)
- Punt (three plays, negative-11 yards)
- Fumble (six plays, 50 yards)
- Interception (three plays, 14 yards)
- Punt (three plays, 1 yard)
Just like the 49ers offensive line dominated the Packers defensive line, the 49ers defensive line dominated the Packers offensive line. San Francisco rookie defensive end Nick Bosa sacked Aaron Rodgers on third-and-7 late in the first quarter to end Green Bay’s second drive. On third-and-6 early in the second quarter, cornerback K’Waun Williams stripped Rodgers, and the Packers recovered the ball for a 15-yard loss that ended Green Bay’s third drive. When the Packers regained possession, Rodgers fumbled a botched snap that 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner recovered to end Green Bay’s fourth drive. When the Packers got the ball back down 20-0, Rodgers threw a pick on second-and-15 to end Green Bay’s fifth drive. Three plays later, the 49ers scored to go up 27-0 and effectively end the game.
The game was shockingly similar to the 49ers’ throttling of the Packers in Week 12, when they beat Green Bay 37-8. The 49ers jumped to a 23-0 halftime lead in that game and then suffocated the Packers like a boa constrictor in the second half. Green Bay put up more points in the second half of the NFC championship game, but the first half of both games reflected San Francisco’s ability to dominate in the trenches and execute its game plan uninhibited while wrecking the Packers’ plans completely.
The 49ers’ elite running game and pass rush makes it ridiculously hard to come from behind against and win. The running game burns the clock and slows the game down, and their pass rush takes away downfield attacks that require a few seconds of pass protection to develop. That strategy will do wonders for them in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers now take on the Chiefs, and no team is better suited to attack Kansas City’s weaknesses. The Chiefs had the third most efficient offense in football this year, according to Football Outsiders, and the 49ers had the second most efficient defense. Kansas City has struggled to stop the run for large stretches this season, and the 49ers just logged one of the best rushing games in NFL postseason history. The Niners’ pass rush of Bosa, former Chiefs defensive end Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner may be the league’s best, and the pressure generated on Patrick Mahomes with just a four-man rush will give them a better chance to defend Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce than any other team. The combination of San Francisco’s rushing dominance and pass-rushing prowess will make coming from behind—like the Chiefs have in each of their past two wins—much harder. Three years after Shanahan’s Falcons blew that 28-3 game, his 49ers are heading to the Super Bowl with a team designed to protect leads.