SANTA CLARA, Calif. – There was hope.
Matt LaFleur instilled it in the visitor’s locker room at halftime, his Green Bay Packers down 27-0 to the San Francisco 49ers. He’d been there before, he said, on the side of a historic collapse. So had the head coach on the other sideline. Current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan called the plays for Atlanta, LaFleur his quarterbacks coach, in Super Bowl LI when the Falcons led 28-3 late in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI. They quite memorably lost that game to New England, 34-28.
Reality on Sunday in the NFC championship was far harsher – the end result a 37-20 49ers victory.
The Packers knew what they could not do against the 49ers. They lived it. On Nov. 24, on this very field. The third-and-longs. The sacks. The turnovers. Beginning in a victorious postgame locker room a week prior the Packers knew they couldn’t give the 49ers anything.
And yet. ...
“It happened, yeah,” whispered Packers center Corey Linsley. “We did what we didn’t want to do. You can’t do that against a team like this.”
And, just as the Packers gave, the 49ers took. Especially in the decisive first half.
They dropped into late coverage that allowed linebacker Dre Greenlaw to bring down Jamaal Williams for a 2-yard gain when he needed 3.
“As soon as I turned around he was already there – it really wasn’t like I had time to turn up or anything,” Williams said. “It was a good play at the time. We were going in a speed-break, so it looked like they went into a little zone anyway over there. You could see the corner was just over the top. He made good play.”
The 49ers then took the ball and scored: 7-0.
After one quarter, not so bad. But then the 49ers pressed the issue. On a four-man rush, Nick Bosa lined up inside over left guard Elgton Jenkins, and then tracked down Aaron Rodgers for a sack on third-and-7.
“They switched up a couple of tendencies on third down and we didn’t have good plays called for a couple of those early third down situations,” LaFleur said. “And that’s a credit to them.”
The 49ers then took the ball and scored: 10-0.
On 3rd-and-6, 49ers defensive coordinator overloaded the right side of the Packers’ line to send corner K’Waun Williams on a blitz. Three men on two. Williams stripped Rodgers in the pocket. Right guard Billy Turner recovered the ball, but it resulted in a punt.
“It was a great call on their part,” Turner said. “They hit it well. If we would have seen that coming I think we would have gotten to something else that would have kind of protected against that, but at that point, they dialed the right thing up at the right time.”
The 49ers then took the ball and scored: 17-0.
Finally, the Packers offense got moving. Multiple first downs thanks to a 23-yard throw to Jake Kumerow and four straight Aaron Jones runs for 27 yards to the San Francisco 25. Then the exchange between Linsley and Rodgers squirted out of the quarterback’s hands and into the waiting paws of 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
“I gotta do a better job of getting the ball up there,” Linsley said. “I’ve got to do my part on that.”
The 49ers then took the ball and scored: 20-0.
“We’re going to cut that to two scores there at minimum,” Rodgers said. “So, yeah, that was … much like the fourth-down stop the first time we played, that was a big turning point.”
In the final two minutes, the Packers tried to push the issue. Rodgers hit Allen Lazard for 19, but then a false start by right tackle Bryan Bulaga not only set them back 5 yards but required a 10-second runoff. Two plays later, Rodgers tried to hit Geronimo Allison but the ball was behind him and was intercepted by 49ers corner Emmanuel Moseley. He returned it 9 yards to the Green Bay 30.
“We were just on different pages there,” Rodgers said. “I threw the ball a little behind him but, yeah, it wasn’t a great throw but we weren’t on the same page, either.”
Shanahan and LaFleur’s shared experience in Atlanta may have been a cause for hope in a mere 61 seconds – but perhaps that forged the dagger that came next.
The 49ers had taken the ball, and three plays later they scored: 27-0.
“We gave it to ’em,” Williams said. “Plain and simple. We gave it to ’em. Kudos to them for capitalizing on everything and having us play from behind. Same thing. We just feel like we gave it to ’em. We just gotta learn from our mistakes and make sure that we come out next time and know that in these type of games we can’t give it to people, turn over the ball.”
The Packers scored 20 points in the second half and got to within two possessions, but their fate was sealed in a first half in which they gave too much, and the 49ers then took it all.