SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The thunderheads were everywhere you looked — but the least of them were in the sky over Levi’s Stadium. The San Francisco 49ers opened the NFL postseason Saturday with a doomlike explosiveness: They were a crackling electrical storm of a team that offered no respite. The Seattle Seahawks were merely a good team, plenty good, yet they got split open in this first-round game like a naked tree in a lightning field, 41-23, simply unable to contain the outbursts from one big playmaker after another. You want to beat the 49ers short of the Super Bowl? Bring your storm shelter.
That young Brock Purdy, with his Romeo face, half-smooth-cheeked boy and half-man, was the main bolt hurler. He was all of 23 years old and appearing in his first playoff game — and surely 71-year-old defensive ball coach Pete Carroll would find some way to distress him. But there was just no way to do it. After a first ball that sailed because of the rainwater on it and a couple of missed opportunities in a first half that left the 49ers trailing 17-16, Purdy started firmly planting his feet and flashing the ball to a vast array of long striders. There were just too many places for Purdy to go with the ball, too many gusting talents on this massive gale of a squad amassed by Kyle Shanahan.
Tracking the multiplicity of the 49ers’ attack was a neck-wrenching task: Whom do you follow in their various actions? Was wideout Brandon Aiyuk their biggest threat, having had a 1,000-yard season? Or running back Christian McCaffrey, with whom they are not coincidentally on an 11-game winning streak, given his 12 touchdowns in that stretch? Then again, you didn’t dare take your eyes off Deebo Samuel or Elijah Mitchell, either, or George Kittle with his seven scores in his previous four games. “Who do you stop?” Carroll asked rhetorically.
But for all of that, the ultimate X-factor was Purdy, who became the first rookie to account for four touchdowns in a playoff game by throwing for three scores (along with 332 yards) and rushing for one. He was so calm and sure yet so charged with his ability to shimmy out of trouble and keep plays alive with his legs, then hit a man in the hands with an off-script strike. “His slitheriness,” Samuel called it. “It kind of makes us tired because we have to run around so much.”
By all rights, the inexperience of Purdy, the last player chosen in last year’s draft, should have been a problem for the 49ers to work around after losing Trey Lance and then Jimmy Garoppolo. Instead, his odd combination of calm and swagger has only weaponized them all the more. When McCaffrey went bowling off on that 68-yard run midway through the first quarter, it set up the play that established Purdy’s presence in the game. On second and goal, Purdy shoulder-twisted away from two fast-closing defenders, and instead of panicking and going blind or sideways, he climbed up in the pocket and found an off-script throw to a slanting McCaffrey, who turned up into the end zone from three yards. Just like that, with five minutes still to go in the opening quarter, the 49ers led 10-0.
In the second half, in which he was a near-perfect 9-for-11 passing, Purdy made similar plays again and again. The 49ers’ drive of 7 minutes 45 seconds to open the third quarter acted like a punch in the mouth and returned the lead to them at 23-17. And then they capitalized on a turnover.
On third and 14, 49ers defensive lineman Charles Omenihu walloped Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith and stripped him of the ball, and Nick Bosa covered it up. “The ball was on the ground for a while, and I was like, ‘Please jump on it,’ ” Shanahan said.
Again, it was Purdy who tore open the scoreboard — after wriggling out of disaster. As the 49ers were poised on the Seahawks’ 7-yard line, linebacker Bruce Irvin clutched at Purdy’s jersey. Purdy spun, made a jagged move to his right and slung it to Mitchell, hitting him square in the hands for the score. (“It was my last read,” Purdy said.) On top of it, he completed a two-point conversion with a nifty fake to McCaffrey followed by a bullet to Kittle. Suddenly it turned into an ugly runaway.
For a last bit of pretty execution, how about Purdy on that naked rollout to his left to find Samuel alone, with the entire Seahawks defense and the entire stadium thinking all the action was on the opposite side? Samuel hit his otherworldly acceleration for a 74-yard scoring play, set up by a massive block from Aiyuk that walled off the sideline.
Just as thunderous for the 49ers were their top-rated defense and brute running game (181 yards). “There are so many playmakers, it doesn’t even have to be headliners,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said.
There was another character in all of this: the actual storms. The weather was a player in its own right, looming over the lip of the stadium in clusters of dark drifting clouds. At one point during pregame, the field looked as though it was covered by a shower curtain. All week the “atmospheric river” took huge dragon bites out of local coastlines, but the 49ers practiced outside in an exhibition of prideful, defiant hardihood. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans bragged: “They didn’t let the elements of the weather dictate how they were feeling. ... It’s a really good sign when your guys are made of the right stuff.” Kittle, the tight end who went four days without power in his home, actually said after one midweek workout, “We had fun today out in the rain and the cold.”
The weather ebbed and surged by the hour. Field staff used massive dryers and tarps to try to protect the natural grass, but a driving sideways rain pelted down for much of Saturday morning, replaced by thick misting fog and shifting wind that blew the banners straight in one direction and left them limp in another, only for patches of sunlight to appear. Uncertainty ruled on everything from what type of cleats to wear to reports that the teams should be prepared for lightning to interrupt the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, the 49ers faithful pitched tents in the parking lots and flew bedraggled flags on metal poles. The most briskly selling black-market items were plastic ponchos.
But by the final quarter, the weather seemed just a mild backdrop to the tempestuous attack of the 49ers themselves.