The NFL playoffs are all about momentum, and George Kittle and the San Francisco 49ers have captured just about all of it. As if the road win against the Dallas Cowboys on Super Wild Card Weekend wasn’t impressive enough, the 49ers traveled to cold and snowy Lambeau Field and upset the top-seeded Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round.
All their hard work to this point has earned them another matchup with a familiar divisional foe, the Los Angeles Rams, in the NFC Championship Game.
No matter the opponent or venue, though, this 49ers squad has the mental fortitude to accomplish anything.
The San Francisco 49ers took the Packers’ best punch and punched back
It was always going to be a physical matchup. Kyle Shanahan loves to run the football, that’s not new news, but his former protége, Matt LaFleur, has picked up on many of his tendencies.
Both coaches wanted to out-muscle their opponent, and on Green Bay’s first drive, it looked like the Packers had the upper hand. Green Bay came out with a ten-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that ended with a tough run into the end zone by A.J. Dillon. It was a tone-setter for Green Bay.
The Packers looked like a well-oiled machine that was ready and able to take advantage of the snowy home-field advantage. That’s about as much as Green Bay’s offense could muster, though.
Credit to the 49ers.
San Francisco’s defense forced the Packers into a fumble and then three straight punts before blocking a Mason Crosby field goal that would have put the Packers up 10-7 at the half.
Green Bay managed a field goal in the second half, but otherwise, the 49ers forced Aaron Rodgers and company into three more punts, including one that was blocked in the shadow of Green Bay’s end zone. Talanoa Hufanga scooped it up and ran in for San Francisco’s only touchdown score of the game, but it was the turning point, and momentum shift that Shanahan and his squad needed.
“That first drive, the way we started that out, it didn’t seem like it was too hard for them (the Packers) with those elements after that first drive. But after that, the defense was unbelievable. And the way the Special Teams stepped it up – blocked kick, the blocked punt for a touchdown, Robbie [Gould] being 100% on those field goals – it was so big,” Shanahan said after the game, according to the team website.
George Kittle says the 49ers are a ‘gritty’ football team
There was a point early in the season when an NFC Championship appearance seemed like a foolish dream.
The 49ers started the season 3-5 and appeared to be trending toward an off-year. One of their early-season losses was at the hands of the Packers, ironically on a last-second field goal. San Francisco was swept by the Arizona Cardinals as well as the Seattle Seahawks, and they boasted just a 2-4 record in the NFC West.
Usually, failure in the division leads to an inability to make the playoffs, but the NFC West was stacked this season and everyone but the Seahawks took a trip to the postseason.
That doesn’t mean the journey was easy for the 49ers, though. They had to go on a run to win six of their last eight games to even have a shot.
That shot came down to the season finale against the Rams, where the Niners had to win to get in. Typical of this season, they made it interesting. The 49ers were down 17-3 at halftime before they roared back to force overtime, ultimately winning the game and punching their ticket to the big dance.
It has been an up and down season, but tight end George Kittle says the journey has made the 49ers a challenging team to go up against.
“This team has been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot of adversity. We’ve dealt with a lot. We’ve lost games by making mistakes and we’ve won games dirty. This is a gritty team. It’s a salty team. We just keep bouncing back,” he said after the win over Green Bay.
“We don’t really let anything freak us out… I don’t want to say we don’t flinch, but we just stay calm. We trust in each other and we trust in the coaches. This whole team is just full of football players that love to play the game. They don’t really care about what’s going on during it, we’re just going to keep battling.”
Kittle and the 49ers are road warriors
It was loud the last time the 49ers played at SoFi Stadium. It was so loud, in fact, that Deeboo Samuel wondered if the Rams were pumping in noise through the loudspeakers because there appeared to be more fans in attendance rooting for the 49ers than for LA.
“I feel like the Rams pump noise because there wasn’t that many Rams fans there,” he said after the game, a 27-24 overtime win for San Francisco.
That’s the same advantage the 49ers will be hoping for in the NFC Title game, though it’s worth noting that they don’t necessarily need it.
They went into Dallas and stunned Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, beating a team that on paper looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Then they went to Lambeau Field and made Rodgers, who very well could win his second-straight MVP, look, pedestrian. The 49ers held him to just 225 yards passing and he couldn’t find the end zone. Rodgers and the Packers talked after the game like they had already planned their Super Bowl afterparties before locking horns with the 49ers. Green Bay clearly overlooked the 49ers, and San Francisco made the Packers pay.
That likely won’t be the case with LA. The Rams clearly know they’ll have their hands full with this 49ers squad. Beating a team three times in one season is hard, but if there was ever a team gritty and tough enough to do it, it would be this one.
“We have a bunch of guys on that team that I just like to call, “true football players.” They really enjoy it.” Shanahan said. “They enjoy watching it. They enjoy practicing. And they love playing.”
The 49ers will get another chance to play the game they love next Sunday at SoFi Stadium. If things go their way one more time, they’ll be right back there in a few more weeks for Super Bowl 56.