The 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in team history Sunday evening, claiming the NFC title with a 37-20 thrashing of the Packers. They built a 27-0 lead at halftime and so thoroughly outmuscled and out-schemed Green Bay with runs that they totaled 285 rushing yards while attempting only eight passes. Raheem Mostert, once an undrafted free agent, rushed for 220 yards — the second-highest playoff total ever — and four touchdowns on 29 carries.
On Feb. 2 in Miami Gardens, Fla., against Patrick Mahomes and the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers will attempt to add a sixth Lombardi Trophy to the museum inside their stadium. Shanahan was on the sideline when the 49ers won their fifth in the 1994 season: He was a ballboy as his father, Mike, called plays as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator. Mike moved on to win two Super Bowls as head coach of the Denver Broncos. Kyle now has a chance to win his first, and he will stare down Kansas City’s Andy Reid with the expertise of a coach who has trained since adolescence to win the Super Bowl.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Mike Shanahan said earlier this season. “He knows what he’s doing. When you work at it every day like he has throughout his whole life, it is your whole life.”
During a postgame ceremony, on a stage in the middle of the field, Mike Shanahan tried to present the NFC championship trophy to 49ers owner Jed York. York insisted Mike pass the trophy to his son. Mike handed it over and raised his hand for a high-five. Shanahan hugged his father instead, a greeting of the first father-son combination to be head coaches in the Super Bowl.
“I don’t think it gets any better than that,” Mike Shanahan said later. “It’s what you work for.”
Kyle Shanahan’s merciless machine of a football team has overwhelmed and dispatched playoff foes with elemental force. The 49ers built their dynastic era in the 1980s and 1990s with balletic offense, a passing game that elevated football to elegance. If another run dawned this month, it happened with Shanahan’s complex, earthbound attack.
In an offensive age defined by pyrotechnic passing, Shanahan guided the 49ers to the Super Bowl with unrelenting rushes. San Francisco ran 47 times in its divisional-round victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey watched that tape six times this past week, “just to keep feeling what we developed that night,” he said. On Sunday against the Packers, the 49ers ran 42 times. Shanahan now has a chance at redemption for his first Super Bowl appearance as a coach, when he called plays for the Atlanta Falcons as they blew a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in the 2016 season.
“If you can get eight yards a clip, six yards a clip, that kind of hurts a defensive coordinator’s pride,” McGlinchey said. “When you do that, you start making guys panic and you start making them do things they’re not comfortable doing.”
The Packers had to reckon with not only a humiliation but also another season of Aaron Rodgers’s prime without a Super Bowl appearance. One of the most arresting talents of his generation, Rodgers has not been to the Super Bowl since he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after the 2010 season. Since then, Rodgers has lost three times in the NFC championship game, and he also bowed out in the divisional round after a 15-1 season. He will turn 37 in December, and he will need to supplant a conference power that just thrashed his team in two games this season by a combined score of 74-28.
Rodgers bolstered his stats in the second half Sunday, but both of his touchdown passes and most of his 326 passing yards were cosmetic. Rodgers committed two crucial turnovers in the first half, fumbling a snap — and then curiously backing away from it — to halt the Packers’ most promising drive of the half and tossing an interception to cornerback Emmanuel Moseley late in the second quarter that allowed the 49ers to effectively seal the game.
“It’s a little raw right now, for sure,” Rodgers said. “It definitely hurts a little more than early in the career.”
At halftime, the 49ers had thrown six passes and led by 27 points. Shanahan typically splits carries among multiple running backs, but after Tevin Coleman exited with a shoulder injury, Mostert received a full load. He had gained 160 yards and scored three touchdowns on 14 carries by halftime.
“It’s truly a blessing,” said Mostert, whom four teams cut before he landed with the 49ers late in 2016. “It’s one of those things where I tell myself, ‘No matter what, man, just keep pushing, keep fighting, because soon good things are going to happen to those who wait.’ I put in my time. I did my patience. It’s paying off right now.”
The 49ers’ coronation came one season after disaster. Early last fall, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo shredded the ACL in his left knee, and San Francisco spiraled to 4-12. That failure gifted the 49ers the second pick in the draft, and they used it to take Nick Bosa, who became the lodestone for an overpowering defensive line studded with first-round picks.
With Garoppolo healthy and Shanahan in his third season cultivating a roster to fit the needs of his offense, the 49ers surged. They will head to South Florida only a few plays away from an undefeated season — all three losses were decided in the final seconds. At team film sessions, Shanahan showed his team clips with no sound.
“You can feel the energy our football team has,” McGlinchey said. “You can see it all over the tape.”
By this past week, they had become convinced of their invulnerability. On Wednesday afternoon, cornerback Richard Sherman stood in the corner of an auditorium as wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders finished a news conference. He told Sanders he came to see the NFC championship trophy because he didn’t know whether it would be there Thursday, when it would be his turn to talk. “It’ll be ours soon,” Sanders replied.
And so it was. The 49ers seized control with their second drive, which started on their 11-yard line. The drive reached the verge of stalling at the Green Bay 36, where the 49ers faced third and eight. All week, the 49ers planned to spring a surprise in this exact situation, with a dual purpose.
Shanahan and his staff picked up on Green Bay’s penchant for exotic pass rushes on third down. To thwart Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and others, the 49ers wanted to force them to play the run. They also thought the play would work because the Packers’ aggression would take them out of position.
“We wanted to be able to hit a run play and get a first down conversion of that,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “We felt like that was going to take them out of their exotic pass rush packages and play a little more conservatively. We knew in the first couple [of drives] we were going to try to hit a run play on a third and long, just keep them off guard.”
When Garoppolo called “trap” in the huddle, right guard Mike Person felt excited. It would be his job to pull to his left and wipe out an unsuspecting defensive tackle, jetting upfield to rush the passer without any thought he might be clobbered from the side.
“That’s taking advantage of what they want to do,” Person said. “If you give up penetration on that, all you need is a little seam.”
The Packers showed exactly the five-man front Shanahan anticipated. At the snap, Person pulled left and walloped his man. Shanahan’s gambit resulted in a yawning hole and open grass. Mostert burst into the vacant space and sprinted down the sideline, 36 yards for a touchdown.
The audacious play-call and sterling execution put the 49ers ahead 7-0 and started an avalanche. In the locker room afterward, 49ers players bopped to hip-hop and wore NFC champion hats and T-shirts. Shanahan jogged off the field and pointed to the crowd. He was headed to the Super Bowl — a place he has been before but never like this.
Read below for our in-game updates.