With four wins just a season ago, the 49ers' terrific turnaround campaign took a monumental step on Sunday evening. Behind a smothering defense and an explosive offensive performance from running back Raheem Mostert, the San Francisco 49ers sprinted out to an emphatic 27-point first-half lead and never looked back en route to defeating the Green Bay Packers, 37-20, at Levi's Stadium to win the NFC Championship Game and advance to Super Bowl LIV. Under coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers are back in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2012 season.
Here's what we learned from the NFC Championship Game.
- Less than an hour after the league's rushing champion was eliminated from postseason play, the 49ers provided fresh evidence supporting the idea that a star running back isn't necessary -- well, mainly because Raheem Mostert isn't yet a "star." Mostert raced 36 yards off tackle past Packers defenders for the game's first score and set the tone for what would be a historic day for the runner who was waived by four teams before landing with the 49ers.
San Francisco pounded the run into oblivion, racking up 39 total rushes, with 29 going to Mostert. San Francisco's offensive line teamed with fullback Kyle Juszczyk (and ambitious run-blocking receiver Deebo Samuel) to blow open massive lanes for Mostert to run through, and it paid off to the tune of four rushing scores and a conference championship-record 220 yards. Nine of Mostert's 24 carries broke 15-plus mph, per Next Gen Stats, an illustration of just how wide open the space was for Mostert.
The 49ers became the second team in these playoffs to complete a touchdown drive without a single pass, running the ball seven straight times for 79 yards, capped by Mostert's fourth score of the night. The loss of Tevin Coleman to a shoulder injury barely even registered as a blip on San Francisco's radar. These Niners are running straight to Miami.
- All of this happened without a significant contribution necessary from franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, other than receiving the snap, turning and handing the ball off. San Francisco became just the third team in NFL history to finish a playoff game with fewer than 10 pass attempts in the Super Bowl era, per NFL Research. Garoppolo one-upped Ryan Tannehill's wild-card and Divisional Round outings by completing 6-of-8 passes for 77 yards and a 104.7 passer rating. As a result, George Kittle was only needed for the smallest output in the passing game, finishing with one catch on one target for 19 yards.
Defense wins championships, the saying goes, but a dominant running attack does just as much, if not more. The only surprising statistical outcome from Sunday: Green Bay won time of possession, but only because it couldn't stop the 49ers from ripping up chunks of yards on the ground.
- The Packers spent most of the week devising a new game plan for the 49ers after their last one failed spectacularly, and doubled down on such efforts by promising a different look Sunday. They then followed such talk by getting dominated in exponentially worse fashion than they were back in Week 12.
Green Bay was outgained 225-93, was 0-4 on third down and turned the ball over twice in the first half. Through 20:44 of game time, Green Bay gained just 46 yards of offense. All the while, the Packers seemed as if they hadn't learned at all from their blowout loss in Week 12, with their usually reliable offensive line appearing befuddled by San Francisco's myriad rushes. Rodgers was sacked just three times, but spent much of the first half constantly under pressure. Aaron Jones was almost nonexistent, finishing with 56 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown (while trailing 34-7) on 12 attempts.
The Packers finished with more respectable numbers in the passing game, thanks to a massive deficit and the need to air it out at all costs in the final two quarters, but the difference in quality of team was painfully apparent by intermission.
- San Francisco's defense received a gift via a botched snap between Rodgers and center Corey Linsley, resulting in a lost fumble, but undoubtedly earned its other two turnovers. Perhaps it's fitting that it was Richard Sherman, the heart and soul of this San Francisco defense, who hauled in the game-sealing interception.
Fueled by doubt that has existed since the moment he signed with San Francisco, Sherman is playing much better than your typical 31-year-old. Sherman was shutting down opponents on deep attempts, allowing zero receptions on such targets entering Sunday, per Next Gen Stats. Rodgers' 65-yard connection with Davante Adams was the first allowed by Sherman this entire season. And it was the last, too, as Rodgers' desperate heave to Adams later was picked off by Sherman, who was mobbed by his teammates in celebration.
The point of this point: For as effective as the 49ers were running the football, they're just as good if not better on the defensive side of the ball. We're headed toward a clash of the titans (just not the ones from Nashville) in Miami.
- Speaking of Adams, it was another excellent outing for the receiver, who made most of his money late in the third and early in the fourth. Adams finished with nine receptions for 138 yards, gaining 131 of those yards in the second half as the Packers were forced to throw repeatedly. It's likely plenty will wonder what might have been had the Packers not sleep-walked through the first half, but it's also the fault of Green Bay for its horrid start. There are no mulligans in this game, nor should there be what-ifs when a team comes out of the gate so poorly.
That start is ultimately what doomed the Packers, who hadn't trailed by 17 or more since Week 12 -- the last time they played the 49ers. Green Bay reached this point by winning close games and closing effectively, but all the offensive output in the second half still wasn't close to enough to close the obvious gap between these two teams. Whether it was coaching, talent, preparation or something else, we'll never fully be able to determine. But it was very clear the 49ers were in a different class than the Packers this day.
- The stage is officially, finally set. The best team in the NFC for the entire season is headed to Miami, as is the team that came this close to taking the AFC crown a season ago. This Super Bowl is 50 years in the making for Kansas City and three for the John Lynch-built 49ers. San Francisco's top-notch defense will face a high-powered, never-say-die Kansas City offense in what will make for a heavyweight bout, while the run-first 49ers will meet a defense that ranked 26th against the run in the regular season but just so happened to limit Derrick Henry to 69 yards Sunday. Andy Reid is back in the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years, while one of the leading faces of the next generation of head coaches patrols the other sideline. There's no crossing of coaching trees to talk about in the next two weeks (don't worry, there's plenty else to discuss), but there is a reigning MVP. Do you really need more reasons to watch?