The San Francisco 49ers are headed back to the Super Bowl after they spent their second straight week rolling up a relatively casual playoff victory over NFC North opposition through simple blunt force. That the Niners are Miami-bound one year after picking second in last year’s draft and winning just four games (becoming one of only three teams to turn it around so quickly) is extremely impressive; that they booked their tickets with a pair of the most physically dominant performances of the year is perhaps even more impressive.
Tonight, it all started with Raheem Mostert, who took on feature back duties after Tevin Coleman injured his shoulder then summarily dispatched Green Bay with 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 rushes. That is half as many rushing touchdowns as passes attempted by Jimmy Garropolo, whose most meaningful contribution to the victory was handing the ball off without tripping or whatever. Mostert tallied the second most rushing yards by any player in the playoffs ever, and he now owns the postseason’s only 200-yard, four-touchdown performance. He was cut by six different teams without ever earning a single carry, and now he ran a team into the Super Bowl.
Mostert’s most eye-popping statistical achievement — 109 yards before contact in the first half alone — says everything about why the 49ers won. The dude is zippy, and he was able to bust through the line seemingly every time he got the rock in quarters one through three because the offensive line carved hectares of space out for him. George Kittle caught one single pass, yet the superstar tight end still provided superstar value by mauling his man and repeatedly springing Mostert free around the edge. The Packers had to have known that Kyle Shanahan’s offense was going to stay terrestrial, yet preparation only means so much when your defense is getting outschemed and also ground to a fine paste at the same time.
This sort of football was supposed to be drawing its final breaths two or so seasons ago, as NFL offenses worshipped at the altar of passing the football and superstar running backs saw their earning potentials crater. It was thrilling, in its own ugly way, to see the 49ers gleefully defy what was supposed to be the trend, especially as the run-heavy behemoths in Tennessee and Baltimore fell short in the 2020 Playoffs. Their quarterback has thrown 27 passes and they’ve put 64 points on the board.
Perhaps Shanahan rode Mostert too hard and could have stood to try, you know, anything else after the Packers began connecting on deep shots, committing eight-plus bodies to bringing down Mostert early, and bringing the game to within two scores in the fourth quarter, though, even then, the game never felt out of reach for the 49ers. Shanahan has famously blown a four-score lead in the playoffs before, and while Niners fans had cause to worry a bit after Aaron Rodgers finally started hucking it, Green Bay seemed so broken by getting run over and coughing the ball up twice during the 27-0 first half that the game’s outcome never truly felt in doubt.
If there’s a critique of the win, it’s a small yet somewhat concerning one. The pass defense bent a little more than they should have late in the second half. That’s largely a function of prevent defense, but the secondary will face a much stiffer test when they line up against an absolute flamethrower in Patrick Mahomes in two weeks. The 49ers have an elite pass rush and a few garbage time big plays are not a real reason to fret over the performance of what was a shutdown unit all year. Still, there is no defense for a perfectly thrown pass, and Mahomes represents the apex of the modern passing revolution; he can make every throw, and he plays for offensive coaches that will scheme up unorthodox angles that he can exploit. San Francisco will plan to brutalize the Kansas City defense with more running and smashing, but Mahomes is such a dynamic threat that the Niners can’t reliably expect to stifle him the way they snuffed out the Packers this evening. It will take more than uncompromising physicality; it’s a good thing the Niners have more, even if they didn’t need to show it today.