49ers top Packers in thriller, head to NFC Championship Game

ByRob Demovsky and Nick Wagoner ESPN logo
Sunday, January 21, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The 31st time was the charm for the San Francisco 49ers.

The 49ers entered Saturday's NFC divisional round playoff matchup with the Green Bay Packers 0-30 under coach Kyle Shanahan when trailing by seven-plus points entering the fourth quarter. But San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy led the first fourth-quarter comeback of his career as the Niners beat the Packers24-21at Levi's Stadium.

Running back Christian McCaffrey scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:07 left, allowing the 49ers to overcome a 21-14 deficit to defeat a pesky Packers squad and advance to the NFC Championship Game, where they'll host the winner of Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions on Jan. 28.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers picked the best possible time for their first second-half, come-from-behind win of the season.

On a night when the well-rested Niners looked rusty, San Francisco managed to keep the game close with a combination of lucky breaks and big plays to set the stage for Purdy and the offense to forge the money-time drive that had eluded them all season.

Taking over down 21-17 with 6:18 to go at their 31-yard line, the Niners marched 69 yards on 12 plays in 5 minutes, 10 seconds. After struggling most of the night, Purdy was 6-of-7 for 47 yards and carried twice for 11 yards on the game-winning drive, which was capped by McCaffrey's 6-yard touchdown run for the final margin.

It was only the second game-winning drive with Purdy under center and the first in which he had to do more than simply take a knee to set up the game-winning field goal. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw's second interception of the night sealed the victory.

Nobody knows better than the Niners the thin line between winning and losing in the postseason, and though it was far from their best performance, it was enough to get them one step closer to a Super Bowl return.

QB breakdown:In a week 6 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Purdy had one of the worst games of his young career in rainy conditions against a top defense. The rain was again a factor on Saturday night, but Purdy wasn't facing that same vaunted defense.

Purdy looked uncomfortable in the pocket for large chunks of the game, seemingly a tick slow going through his progressions and misfiring to open receivers. But when his team needed him the most, he rebounded to finish 23-of-39 for 252 yards with a touchdown pass and no interceptions.

Biggest hole in the game plan: At the end of the first half, the Niners held a 7-6 lead and had the ball with 4:09 to go and three timeouts in their pocket. It looked like a golden opportunity for Shanahan and the Niners to "lap" the Packers with a touchdown before the half and then another to open the third quarter.

Shanahan played it ultra-conservatively, running the clock down in an apparent attempt to prevent the Packers from getting the ball back rather than being aggressive in an effort to put another touchdown on the board.

That approach backfired as kicker Jake Moody's 48-yard field goal attempt was blocked, and the Niners went three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half. Instead of a potential 21-6 lead, it was 7-6. Green Bay then seized the lead with 9:27 left in the third quarter.

Key injury:The 49ers lost receiver Deebo Samuel to a left shoulder injury in the first half, and he did not return. Samuel had two catches for 24 yards on San Francisco's opening possession but left the game to first be evaluated for a concussion. When he cleared those tests, he departed again because of a shoulder issue.

At halftime, the Niners ruled Samuel out for the rest of the game with Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud III stepping in opposite Brandon Aiyuk. --Nick Wagoner

Next game: vs. winner of Buccaneers-Lions at 6:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 28.

Green Bay Packers

This still seems like the beginning of something significant.

After all, the Packers were the youngest team in the league, and few expected Jordan Love's first season as the starting quarterback to even get this far.

But despite Saturday's disappointing loss to the top-seeded 49ers, the window for this team is just beginning to open. Consider all the young skill players the Packers have around Love -- receivers Romeo Doubs, Christian Watson, Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks and Bo Melton, along with tight ends Tucker Kraft and Luke Musgrave -- will be together for multiple years to come.

And running back Aaron Jones showed down the stretch that he still has plenty left in the tank to come back for another run.

Love's last pass -- an ill-advised deep throw over the middle that was picked off by Greenlaw -- will linger as the one that ended the season, but it could ultimately prove to be a learning experience for Love.

Pivotal play part 1: After Jones was stuffed for no gain on the first play of the second quarter, coach Matt LaFleur elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 49ers' 14 rather than trying a field goal that would've given Green Bay a 6-0 lead. Love's sneak attempt was stuffed by Greenlaw. LaFleur didn't like the spot, but it wasn't moved. The 49ers then scored a touchdown on the next possession.

Pivotal play part 2: Two plays before that 49ers touchdown, Purdy appeared to get away with intentional grounding on first-and-10 from the Packers' 37. From within the pocket, Purdy threw it away deep down the field, but there wasn't a receiver anywhere in the vicinity. On third-and-5 from the Packers' 32, Purdy hit tight end George Kittle for the score.

Troubling trend:Anders Carlson's missed field goal attempt from 41 yards in the fourth quarter was the rookie kicker's 10th missed kick in the past 12 games, including both field goals and extra points.

Bold prediction for the offseason:Joe Barry will be back as defensive coordinator. It once seemed like he was sure to be fired, but it would be a surprise now after the way the Packers finished the season despite the 49ers' last drive.

Consider this quote from LaFleur last week when asked about Barry: "I couldn't be happier. I know what Joe Barry is all about in terms of the resiliency. There's tough moments, and there's tough moments in every season. I felt like I know what we have in him and was confident that if anybody could kind of right the ship, so to speak, it was him." -- Rob Demovsky

Next game:2023 season is over.

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