SANTA CLARA — No one — not even the most pious member of the Faithful — saw this coming from the 49ers this season.
They were supposed a plucky upstart, at best, good for eight or nine wins and perhaps a trip to the playoffs. Maybe quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could even win them a game if they made it.
But they weren’t supposed to be a dominant force, a team that claimed the top seed in the NFC playoffs and then ran roughshod over their competition in the postseason.
They weren’t supposed to be going to the Super Bowl — not this year, at least.
But that’s where they’re be going. With a 37-20 beatdown of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers punched their ticket to the Super Bowl, Feb, 2 in Miami, against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The 49ers and Packers head coaches were adamant before Sunday’s contest that it would be much different than the teams’ first meeting, a 37-8 San Francisco win just after Thanksgiving.
They were right. It was different. This game was an even bigger blowout, the final score be damned.
The 49ers eviscerated the Packers, opening a 27-0 halftime lead en route to the team’s first berth in The Big Game since 2012.
The 49ers’ used the same formula for success from the team’s first playoff game this year, a 27-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings eight days prior: fluster the opposing quarterback and run right over their defense.
And, truth be told, it was even easier to do it time. The 49ers barely needed to break a sweat Sunday, such was their dominance.
Garoppolo could have taken the third quarter off and the 49ers still would have advanced. He needed to throw only six times in the first half and eight times total in the game. He went 24 minutes of game action without needing to attempt a pass — about 90 minutes in real time.
During that stretch, the Niners ran the ball 12 straight times. Raheem Mostert, behind a road-grading offensive line from the second series on, ran for a whopping 220 yards — the second-most rushing yards in a playoff game in NFL history — and four touchdowns.
It was, unquestionably, the greatest rushing performance in 49ers’ playoff history.
Meanwhile, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t delay in running scared from the 49ers’ tenacious defensive line. From the first snap of the game, the four-headed monster of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead had him dinking and dunking on pass plays, a trend that continued until the 49ers mercifully relented.
Rodgers was sacked only three times Sunday, but the 49ers registered pressure on nearly every one of the veteran quarterback and future Hall of Famer’s dropbacks. The Niners’ pass rush was so overwhelming that it bordered on cruel.
The Packers quarterback cooked the books with some garbage-time stats against a soft, lead-protecting Niners’ defense. The game became marginally interesting in the fourth quarter because of it, Rodgers’ first-half performance (9-of-12, 64 yards, one interception, one fumble) told the real story of the game.
The Packers’ offense, just as in the teams’ first matchup, could barely gain inches against the Niners, who backed up their four-man terror squad on the line with space-eating zone coverage.
The victory was comprehensive. There’s no question that the better team advanced to Miami.
And in that win, there was also a tremendous amount of validation for these 49ers.
Validation for head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was hired by the Niners after a historic Super Bowl collapse four years ago as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator. In his first 32 games as an NFL head coach, the Niners won 10.
Yet he was adamant, all along, that he and general manager John Lynch were building something big in Santa Clara. He wasn’t lying, and on Sunday, he received the NFC champions trophy from his father, former NFL coach and Super Bowl champion Mike Shanahan, an unforgettable moment for both.
Validation for Mostert. He played for six teams as a special teams player, including three years with the 49ers, before finding his opportunity to become a lead running back this season. He continued to believe that his moment would come. Who would have known that — despite tremendous play in the lead-up to Sunday — that the NFC Championship Game would be that moment?
Validation for Garoppolo. He parlayed a late-season surge in 2017 into a then-record contract, tore his ACL in the third game of the next season, and then entered this campaign surrounded by questions that never truly subsided, even after big games and a 13-3 regular-season record. Those questions will likely persist as the team heads to Florida — he only attempted 27 total passes in the 49ers’ two postseason games — but if you’re going to catch shade, it’s best to do it in a sunny locale.
Validation for Robert Saleh, the Niners’ defensive coordinator who found himself on the fans’ chopping block after two underwhelming seasons. He was the head that needed to roll for the 49ers’ lack of success in the first two years of the Shanahan era, but now he’s now a bonafide coaching star, having built one of the most intimidating — and dominating — defenses in recent NFL history.
Validation for Richard Sherman, the future Hall of Famer who came to the Niners in 2018 after what was believed to be a catastrophic, career-ending Achilles tendon injury. Sherman negotiated his own contract, betting on his ability to once again become a dominant cornerback. He was that this season, earning second-team All-Pro honors and anchoring this ferocious defense. His fourth-quarter interception of Rodgers iced a game that was already well-chilled.
The list of validations can go on. Every 49ers player and coach’s long-held hopes and dreams included a moment like Sunday’s.
But you know what would even further validate this incredible season?
A win two Sundays from now.