Final score: 49ers 23, Packers 20
What does it mean to be built for the playoffs?
We hear it a lot, but does anyone really know what it means? Here are five traits shared by most teams to earn this moniker:
1. Play physical.
2. Run the ball effectively enough to eat up the clock.
3. Deal with crowd noise and avoid miscues.
4. Pressure the quarterback (a lot).
5. Have solid special teams play.
Call it a check on all fronts for the San Francisco 49ers, which is a big reason they made it to the NFC Championship Game last season. It's also what got them through a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon in Green Bay in the wild card round.
Watching the game, I kept thinking that the 49ers were built to win what would become out sixth top game of 2013. This is not to suggest the Packers weren't a solid football team. In fact, what made the game so special was the fact that Green Bay gave the Niners all they could handle. They ran the football well (124 yards), and played solid enough defense to be up 17-13 in the fourth quarter. On the flip side, the 49ers kept Aaron Rodgers in check, and after holding the Green and Gold to a game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter (instead of a touchdown), they embarked on a final game-winning drive.
All the while, San Francisco did it by playing their brand of football. Jim Harbaugh's group ran the ball 30 times, and the ball left Colin Kaepernick's hand 30 times. The run-pass mixture took pressure off their young quarterback while being mindful of the elements. They change plays at the line infrequently, thus negating much of the Lambeau crowd factor. Harbaugh's defense pressured Rodgers repeatedly, sacking him four times and hitting him on other plays. And special teams was huge, as Phil Dawson made all three of his field goals, while LaMichael James had two 30-plus yard returns that kick-started 49er touchdown drives.
Back to that final drive. Kaepernick completed our list of prerequisites for being built for the postseason, making several big plays in leading the 49ers on a 14-play, 65-yard drive. The offense ensured Rodgers would get no more possessions by eating up the remaining 5:06 on the clock. Then Phil Dawson sent everybody home with the game-winning field goal.
It was textbook postseason football. It was exciting football. And that's why it's on our list of the "Top 20 Games of 2013."
It had to be Kaepernick. Despite throwing an interception, he hit some big throws on third down as well as a key touchdown on a 227-yard passing day. Add 98 rushing yards and the play below, and it was a clutch performance.
With 1:13 left to play, and facing a third-and-10 from the Packer 38-yard line, the 49ers really needed a big play from Kaepernick. An incomplete pass or run up the middle would do nothing, as Dawson was not going to be hitting from over 50 yards out kicking a rock hard football. That's when the franchise (we think) quarterback took over, running the ball around the left side of the formation, and using that long stride to pick up 11 critical yards. Watch it again, and you'll see that if Jarrett Bush had just kept contain Green Bay might have been playing in Seattle the next week.
The 49ers ran 30 times in Green Bay, 34 times in Carolina, and another 28 in the NFC Championship Game. How do you think that stacks up compared to the other 11 playoff teams? Check out the stat board for more.
For all of the attention paid to the temperature of this game, at kickoff the 10 below zero wind chill merely registered as the fourth-coldest postseason game -- in Lambeau Field. By comparison, the 1981 AFC Championship Game between the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals, had a wind chill of 37 below zero (using the modern formula). The famed "Ice Bowl" between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay was 36 below zero. Yikes.
Of course we all know the 49ers went on to beat the Carolina Panthers and face the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. Yet, had Green Bay won, they would have played in Seattle in the divisional round, based on seeding. What a fun rematch of the "Fail Mary" that would have been. Now we'll have to wait until the 2014 season kicks off to see that game.
NFL Network will feature games No. 10 through No. 1 in an all-day marathon from 6 a.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET, Sunday, July 6.
-- by Elliot Harrison. Follow Elliot on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.