SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- He is one of pro football's premier playmakers, a soft-handed All-Pro who owns the NFL single-season record for receiving yards at his position. Yet here George Kittle was, after a game in which he'd barely touched the football, lighting up like the Levi's Stadium scoreboard Sunday night as he removed his sweaty jersey at his locker and looked forward to one of the most rewarding showers of his life.
Certainly, the San Francisco 49ers' star tight end had reason to be thrilled. He and his teammates had just rolled to a 37-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, continuing one of the more remarkable single-season turnarounds in NFL history and catapulting the Niners into a Super Bowl LIV matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs in South Florida on Feb. 2.
However, the resounding triumph over the Packers and their future Hall of Fame quarterback in front of 72,211 fawning fans wasn't the sole source of Kittle's satisfaction. No -- the emotion that poured out of him was born of something deeper, more guttural and fundamentally aligned with his character. After having spent three hours helping his team blow Green Bay defenders off the ball, Kittle was in his happy place, and he had no desire to be anywhere else.
"It's my favorite part of football," Kittle told me as he wriggled out of the white, nylon flak jacket protecting his ribs. "Moving a man from Point A to Point B is the greatest feeling you'll ever feel. You've just got to trust me -- there's nothing better than that s---.
"[Our coaches] said before this game, 'We're gonna run it till they stop it.' So we did, and they didn't stop it, and we kept running and running some more."
In a game that evoked images of the Niners of the 1950s, when the Million Dollar Backfield routinely ripped through opponents, Kittle was a key component of the smashmouth attack that allowed San Francisco to control this clash from start to finish. And if Kittle's stat line (one reception, 19 yards) seems strikingly anemic at first blush, consider that his quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, completed just six passes -- and attempted a grand total of eight -- while Packers counterpart Aaron Rodgers (31 of 39, 326 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) furiously and incongruously tried to catch up.
Though the Packers, after falling behind 27-0 at halftime and 34-7 in the third quarter, managed to cut the Niners' lead to 34-20 with 8:13 remaining, a comeback never seemed plausible. That's because the 49ers repeatedly ground Green Bay into submission, running for an obscene 285 yards, with speedy six-time castoff Raheem Mostert (29 carries, 220 yards, four TDs) carrying the bulk of the load.
As has so often happened under third-year coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the sport's most creative offensive strategists, this game -- the most important in Levi's Stadium's six-year history -- played out virtually according to plan. Actually, it played out even better than Shanahan and his brainy assistants had envisioned.
While preparing for Sunday's rematch with the Packers, run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel became convinced that attacking the edges gave San Francisco the best chance of success. His reasoning stemmed from the fact that Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Pettine -- who, in one of the many examples of cross-pollination between the two coaching staffs, had been the Cleveland Browns' head coach who'd employed Shanahan (offensive coordinator) and McDaniel (wide receivers coach) during the 2014 season -- had become notoriously difficult to predict.
While watching film from the two teams' late-November meeting at Levi's, a 37-8 Niners blowout that nonetheless left the home team frustrated at times offensively, McDaniel grew increasingly exasperated by his inability to decipher Pettine's tendencies. Ultimately, he and Shanahan decided to discard many of the plays they'd used during their previous 17 games and settle on a streamlined plan of attack: Primarily, they'd use Kittle and fellow tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo as edge blockers and run right at the Packers' unrelated but equally imposing edge rushers, Za'Darius and Preston Smith.
The upshot, in McDaniel's eyes: The Packers' defenders, he felt, would have to play harder than they'd played all season, for the entire game, to stop what was coming at them. If Green Bay pulled that off, he could live with it.
The approach worked masterfully, even after starting running back Tevin Coleman went out with a second-quarter shoulder injury. Mostert, cut by six teams before finally sticking in San Francisco as a backup and special teams standout, proceeded to have the game of his life; only Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson (248 yards for the Los Angeles Rams against the Dallas Cowboys 34 years earlier) has rushed for more yards in a postseason contest.
From the first-quarter decision to hand the ball to Mostert on third-and-8, resulting in a 36-yard touchdown run that gave the Niners a 7-0 lead, to a second-half approach that included only two Garoppolo passes, the first of which (the 19-yard completion to Kittle) occurred with 8:10 left in the game, Shanahan pushed all the right buttons.
After the game, as he stood in a hallway leading to a private section of the joyous San Francisco locker room, Shanahan did his best to downplay his strategic successes.
"[Pettine] gave us a headache all week, all the stuff that they do," Shanahan said. "It's exhausting to try to put a plan together. There's no way that we just went out and schematically did that. That was a mindset and mentality. And our players had it the whole game, and they were relentless. It was very easy calling plays."
Shanahan's play-calling acumen, which has long been admired in NFL circles, was never more apparent than it was three years ago, during the first two-and-a-half quarters of Super Bowl LI. As the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator -- with Matt LaFleur, who completed his largely uplifting rookie season as the Packers' head coach with a 14-4 record, serving as quarterbacks coach -- Shanahan's creative game plan helped produce a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots, confounding one of the greatest defensive geniuses in the sport's history in the process. But Bill Belichick's Patriots, led by legendary quarterback Tom Brady, spoiled the storyline with an epic comeback, and Shanahan left to take over a Niners team that was in the midst of a major rebuild.
Year 1 was rough, with Shanahan losing his first nine games as a head coach. Fueled by the insertion into the lineup of Garoppolo, Brady's former backup and a midseason trade acquisition, the Niners rallied to win their final five games and finish 6-10.
Year 2, which began with much promise, degenerated amid a season-ending knee injury suffered by Garoppolo in late September -- against the Chiefs, incidentally -- and San Francisco struggled through a 4-12 campaign.
Year 3? Well, it has been insanely satisfying. The Niners have lost only three games -- all on the final play -- to reach their first Super Bowl in seven seasons. If they can run the ball against Kansas City the way they did against the Packers on Sunday, they'll have a great chance of matching the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers by capturing their sixth Lombardi Trophy, and first since a Super Bowl XXIX blowout of the San Diego Chargers (also in South Florida) in January of 1995.
It helps that they have a ferocious defense keyed by a suffocating front four and featuring a future Hall of Famer in outspoken cornerback Richard Sherman, who laid out for a game-sealing interception of a Rodgers pass to Davante Adams with 1:48 remaining. And they have an offense full of unselfish players like Kittle, who has caught 173 passes in the past two regular seasons -- including the 61-yard third-quarter touchdown that broke open the Niners' first meeting with the Packers -- that don't freak out when they don't put up big numbers.
Garoppolo, one of the most likeable locker-room leaders in the sport, is a tone-setter in that regard.
"Eight attempts? Crazy. But hey, whatever it takes," he said, smiling, as he strode through the locker room after the game. "One more win, we get a ring -- we'll take it."
As the final minutes of the third quarter wound down, with the Niners holding a 34-7 lead, Garoppolo asked Mostert, "How many yards have we thrown for?"
"Forty yards," Mostert answered. "We've got 200 rushing, though."
Garoppolo shook his head in amazement. "Oh my God," he told Mostert. "But hey -- I'm 4-for-6."
By then, Kittle was essentially a sixth offensive lineman, to the point where he might as well have reported as an eligible receiver before each play. Watching the spectacle from the sideline, Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh -- whose excellent plan of attack on Rodgers and the Packers reinforced his status as a prime head-coaching candidate for the 2021 season -- felt some empathy for Pettine, his Packers counterpart.
"It's backbreaking," Saleh said. "I always say, 'I'd rather have a team throw for 500 on us than run for 300.' It crushes your spirit."
Agreed DeForest Buckner, the Niners' standout defensive tackle: "Just watching them run the ball up and down the field, it was unbelievable. As a defense, when you can't stop them, that takes away your confidence -- especially when you know it's coming."
For Rodgers, 36, it was a helpless feeling that accompanied his third NFC Championship Game defeat in the past six seasons. That Shanahan could prevail comfortably over a team quarterbacked by one of the most prolific players of his era -- and dial up a game plan with single-digit passing attempts -- sounds completely surreal, but it happened, on a chilly night just south of San Francisco Bay that turned out to be decidedly Super.
"I mean, you can't just do that," Shanahan said. "That's not just a conscious decision. That shows you a lot about our team. To [throw the ball only eight times], you've gotta have the defense, you've gotta have the offense, you've gotta have the O-line, the running backs, the quarterback. You gotta have everything."
In this case, you've got to have a star tight end who believes fantasy points are far less enticing than moving a man from Point A to Point B.
Shanahan has that, and a whole lot more -- and two weeks to figure out how to attack one last opponent standing between him and the feeling he covets most.