SANTA CLARA, Calif. — You want to know who held Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers accountable Saturday, with the clock running out, the rain coming down, Deebo Samuel out injured and the Green Bay Packers just a play or two from a monumental playoff upset?
You want to know who assigned responsibility and demanded that the 49ers fight through their game-long struggles? Who laid out all the potential consequences? That would be Purdy and every other member of the 49ers, who got themselves into this spot with one of their most baffling performances of this season.
They got the ball back with 6:13 left in the game after a Packers field-goal miss. They 49ers trailed by four points. They needed a touchdown. And they knew this was probably their last realistic chance to figure out how to avoid a horrendous loss in this divisional-round playoff game. So once the offense got into the huddle, Trent Williams gave a mini-speech.
“I just told them, hey, man, with six minutes left, this might be the last time we get the ball. And if we don’t do something with it, this could be the last time we’re in this huddle together,” Williams recalled. “So whatever you’ve got, just bring it. Bring it the next play and then bring it the play after that and then let the rest take care of itself.”
They all felt it. The 49ers were at Levi’s Stadium, set up as NFC favorites to get to the Super Bowl, and they absolutely felt it. What happened next: Purdy broke out of his funk and started completing passes, Brandon Aiyuk made a huge diving catch on third down, Purdy scrambled inside the Packers’ 10-yard line and finally Christian McCaffrey bolted in for a 6-yard touchdown that put the 49ers ahead at last. Then Dre Greenlaw finished off the 49ers’ 24-21 victory by intercepting Jordan Love’s ill-advised across-his-body heave in the final minute.
But oh yeah, the 49ers felt it. And nobody felt it more than Purdy. Almost an hour after the game, you could tell they still felt it — all the adrenaline, all the disappointment over playing so haphazardly in such a big game, all the significance and all the relief. The 49ers saw their playoff lives flash before their eyes Saturday … and thanks to those last handful of plays, they’re still alive with a berth in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s on Jan. 28, facing the winner of Sunday’s Lions-Buccaneers game.
They live. And they know a little more about themselves now than they did after all their easy victories this season. (But so do their opponents.)
“At a point, you’re down and you’ve gotta find a way,” Purdy said. “It’s the fourth quarter, it’s the NFL. Obviously, we’re in the postseason now. We were all, like, all right, this is it. This is our season. For us to capitalize on that was huge. For all of us.
“Obviously for myself as a quarterback, it’s good for confidence and all that. But we have too many good players on this team, so many players that are difference-makers. We’ve got a great defense. For us to not find a way, it’s not right. So for us to finally have a game like this and pull through it was huge for all of us.”
Nick Bosa flat-out said that the 49ers needed a game like this and noted that they lost all their close games this regular season and won all the blowouts. And more than anybody, Purdy needed something like this. Of course, the 49ers never want to see Purdy wobble for three-plus quarters the way he did Saturday. The 49ers never want to get outplayed like the way the Packers outplayed them for most of this game.
But the 49ers also needed to see Purdy rise up from a struggle and deliver. They needed him not to just be a great front-runner. They needed him to dig out from a hole and win this dang game, and he went 6-of-7 on that last drive, looking quite calm (“he was Brock, couldn’t tell anything,” Williams said of that moment) and very much like the guy who led the NFL in passer rating and broke the 49ers’ single-season record for passing yards this season.
So what in the world was happening in this game for Purdy before that? The rain, for sure, caused him some trouble, the same way the wet weather in Cleveland early this season seemed to bother him. At times Saturday, Purdy wiped his right hand even as he dropped back to pass.
“Obviously, I put on a glove for the first drive,” Purdy said. “It was coming down in sprinkles, so I took it off. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was sort of fed up with the glove. … Yeah, there were times I dropped back when the ball was a little wet from the grass. Sort of affected some accuracy and stuff. But that’s football. I’ve gotta be better than that.”
49ers overcome Packers, rain and their own mistakes: ‘It was gut check for everybody’
Not an issue, though, if it’s dry next Sunday at Levi’s and of course not at all if the 49ers get to the Super Bowl at Las Vegas’ indoor Allegiant Stadium in February.
Purdy also said that the Packers’ defense did a good job cutting off his deep options and forcing him to go to his checkdowns. And then Purdy spent most of the game rushing those checkdowns, often for incompletions. Also, while the Packers registered only one sack in the game, the pass rush seemed to bother Purdy — altering his throwing lanes and making him move his feet as he threw, which led to a couple of wild passes that the Packers easily could’ve intercepted but dropped.
This might be a problematic issue for the 49ers in the next few weeks, since Purdy also looked quite uncomfortable against the Ravens on Christmas, and the Ravens very well could be the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. But Purdy sounded like he solved something in his head during that last drive; if they’re begging you to take the easy pass, and the easy pass can march you down the field, just take the easy pass. Don’t let earlier mistakes mess you up when it matters most.
“We had what we wanted right in front of us, so you have to clean the slate,” Purdy said. “You have to have a clean mind and not try to force anything. Take what the defense gives you. And find a way, man.”
On that last drive, Purdy completed the short passes that were there and then zipped a crucial 17-yard out route to Chris Conley. His only incompletion on the series came when George Kittle — who otherwise was the 49ers’ best offensive performer, chipping in a 32-yard TD in the second quarter and 81 receiving yards overall — dropped another short one, which Purdy followed up with the dart to Aiyuk on third down.
“The whole day was just a little off,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But guys stuck with it. Even that second-and-6 right there at the end, getting that drop leads us to third-and-6, then BA made a helluva play to keep us on the field.”
Another potential cause for the 49ers’ bumpy offensive play: the two-week layoff, counting Week 18 when Purdy and many other frontliners sat out the meaningless loss to the Rams and last weekend’s bye.
“I don’t know, could’ve been that,” Shanahan said. “Could’ve been the rain, could be good defense. But those are stuff you’ve gotta talk about. We handled that as best we could.”
Purdy, who was 23-for-39 on the day for 252 yards and 1 TD, for a 86.7 passer rating, wasn’t the only struggling 49er in this game, of course. The defense suffered through a handful of slips and miscues against Love and his receivers and gave up a huge 53-yard run to Aaron Jones. The 49ers’ special teams got hit, too — the coverage unit gave up a 73-yard kickoff return to Keisean Nixon and Jake Moody had a 48-yard field-goal attempt deflected at the line.
But the defense turned in Greenlaw’s game-sealing interception, plus another one earlier, and stopped Green Bay in the red zone multiple times. And Moody made up for his earlier miss with a clutch 52-yarder early in the fourth quarter that brought the 49ers to within 21-17.
“By no means was it perfect,” Shanahan said. “I was very frustrated. But also extremely proud and also really pumped that we’re playing another week.”
Quite frankly, the 49ers played the kind of playoff game that usually gets a team eliminated. There would’ve been harsh criticism leveled throughout the NFL if the 49ers and Purdy had lost this game. And the 49ers and Purdy knew all that, as the clock ticked down and they got into that huddle. There was a season to save. And now there might be a couple more games left to play.
Dre Greenlaw wouldn’t go down, and neither did the 49ers thanks to him
(Top photo of Brock Purdy: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)