SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The celebration rang in the hallways at Levi’s Stadium late Sunday. Workers wheeled the championship stage toward the field in five parts. Injured 49ers players whooped and hollered as golf carts sped them toward confetti showers. A random fan in a Joe Montana jersey kept jumping at stadium employees, awkwardly bumping so many yellow-vested chests. Jerry Rice raised his fist in triumph as he walked into the night.
This is what it looked like and what it sounded like, as the 49ers secured their first trip to the Super Bowl since the 2012 season, as a franchise as proud as any in pro football finally managed to return to the game that once seemed like its birthright. All the revelry took place near walls painted with dates and Roman numerals—XVI and XIX and XXIII and XXIV and XXIX—so many dates and so many numerals because San Francisco has won so many titles. The question now, after the 49ers bludgeoned the Packers 37-20 on Sunday in a game that was never close nor competitive, was whether they would need to paint another set on those walls in two weeks, adding LIV.
As the 49ers prepare to play the Chiefs for the Lombardi Trophy, what was obvious throughout this season now seems even more clear. San Francisco owns the deepest and most balanced roster in its conference; its defense is finally again healthy and ranks among the most dominant units in pro football; and it can win a game where quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo throws it 35 times (New Orleans, Week 12) or when he makes only eight attempts (Sunday). Especially when running back Raheem Mostert, a surfer/skater dude from Florida, can gain 220 rushing yards like he did on Sunday, good for the second-most in a single playoff game in NFL history.
This, simply, is the 49ers’ formula—and it’s one that could lead to another round of Roman numerals added to the wall. The team is tough, deep, versatile and adaptable. They can control the clock, and they can shut teams down. That’s why they won 13 regular season games and why the three games they did lose—one in overtime, one at the very end of regulation, one when leading by five points with six seconds left—all came down to the final play. They could argue they’re three plays, right now, from being undefeated.
Their general manager, John Lynch, considered all this in the triumphant locker room, while holding a T-shirt that read “From Mobile to Miami”—representing the site of the Senior Bowl, where the executives of the 30 teams that aren’t still playing gather this week, and the site of Super Bowl LIV. “We built it the right way,” he said. “And the coolest thing is this is sustainable.”
He’s right. Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan traded for Garoppolo in 2017. They stockpiled defensive linemen with high draft picks, constructing a position group that might be the best unit in the NFL. They traded for Dee Ford and selected Nick Bosa with the second pick in the 2019 draft. They collected speed. Took a team that had been undone by injuries last season, that ranked No. 28 in scoring defense and No. 13 overall, and made them relevant again, made them good again. The 49ers could be playing like this for years.
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The best example of how they operate, veteran lineman Joe Staley said late Sunday, was Mostert, the running back who had been cut seven times before he stuck in San Francisco. Reporters surrounded the unlikely hero in the locker room postgame, and when one asked him if he always expected he would end up here, with the most rushing yards in any conference championship game ever played, he laughed. No, he certainly did not. He told himself only to keep pushing, keep fighting, keep listening to Shanahan. He came down with the flu earlier this week. He saw fellow back Tevin Coleman be carted off the field with shoulder injury on Sunday. He watched as Shanahan didn’t call a single pass in the third quarter, turning Garoppolo into the world’s most handsome handoff machine.
Mostert? He ran through holes that seemed as wide as the Bay Bridge, sprinting left and right and straight ahead, cutting when necessary, slipping through so many tackles that sometimes it felt like he might score every time he ran. After he held his son, age six-and-a-half months, on stage during the celebration, he couldn’t quite explain how the night felt. “Happiest day of my life,” he managed, before subbing his wedding day and the birth of his boy atop the history he made on Sunday night.
That’s the thing, though, about the 49ers. Mostert gained more rushing yards in a single playoff game than all but one back in NFL history, and his night wasn’t Sunday’s most impressive performance. That title again belonged to the San Francisco defense—a unit that is strong pretty much everywhere, that boasts Bosa and Ford and shutdown corner Richard Sherman and swarming linebacker Kwon Alexander and Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner and Fred Warner. It’s like a Pro Bowl defense—but on one team.
Together, Mostert and the defense turned the first half of a conference championship against a formidable Packers offense into a complete and total rout. Bosa dropped Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers with a one-armed sack. Emmanuel Moseley picked off an errant pass. Star wideout Davante Adams managed only one catch for seven yards in the first two quarters. All told, the unyielding defense vaulted San Francisco to a 27-0 advantage at the break, meaning that in two games against the Packers, the 49ers had outscored their rival by 50 without yielding any points at all.
In the first eight weeks of this potentially Super season, the 49ers defense allowed 11 points a game on average, and San Francisco ranked first in QBR allowed, sacks, sack rate and passing yards allowed. But injuries befell the unit. Ford hurt his quadriceps, Bosa tweaked an ankle, Alexander tore a pec and Sherman strained his hamstring. They’re all back, all healthy, at least relative to this time of year. As Alexander stood at his locker late Sunday, rap music thumping all around him, wearing ripped jeans and three chains and diamonds even on the bridge of his glasses, he kept returning to his favorite word. Legendary. The 49ers were so close. “We’re just ready,” he said. “We’re going to go down there and go get it.”
That could wait late Sunday. They passed around the George Halas Trophy for the first time in seven years. Two huge speakers blasted rap music so loud that it was hard to hear the interviews. One family member sipped a White Claw and Garoppolo danced for a teammate’s Snapchat and Alexander’s crew of 49ers, known as the Hot Boyzz, settled in front of cameras for a picture.
That’s the thing about this team. They’re close, they’re relaxed, they’re balanced and they’re talented. But what mattered most this season and most this Sunday is the formula that Kyle Shanahan has created, the ethos with which his team plays. It’s not only good enough to vault San Francisco into the Super Bowl. It’s good enough for them to win it.
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