The snow flurries came in the second half of the San Francisco 49ers’ playoff game at host Green Bay on Saturday. The temperature dropped. The fog of heavy breath poured out of players’ face masks in one of the most storied venues in American sports.
The 49ers needed their defense to come through over and over again. The offense was ineffective, with a rare scoring opportunity thwarted by a Jimmy Garoppolo interception at the end of the first half. Another came in the fourth quarter when San Francisco turned it over on downs, getting stuffed on a fourth-and-1 run when they needed a touchdown to tie it.
The offense wouldn’t be the reason the 49ers would escape Lambeau Field with an upset victory over the No. 1-seeded Packers.
On the other side was Aaron Rodgers, the presumptive NFL MVP, one of the best quarterbacks in league history, on his frozen home turf, desperate for an opportunity to beat a team he lost to three times in the postseason before Saturday night.
With just over five minutes remaining in a dramatic divisional round playoff game, the 49ers scored just three points. Rodgers had the ball with his team leading, 10-3. A drive resulting in a field goal or touchdown would have effectively ended San Francisco’s season.
It was third and 8. The 49ers needed a stop to keep their resilient season alive. Arik Armstead was lined to the outside shoulder of right guard Lucas Patrick. He took off on the snap, beating Patrick inside with the help of star pass rusher Nick Bosa pressuring to his left. Armstead had a shot at Rodgers and took him down for his second sack of the game. The first came deep in San Francisco territory early in the fourth quarter, which forced Green Bay to settle for a field goal, keeping four points off the board.
Armstead, again, was rubbing his belly in celebration. His signature post-sack move tells the football world: “stay hungry, my friends,” an adage that sparks his personal motivation to be a star on the field and pillar of the Sacramento community away from it.
“It was an amazing experience,” Armstead said afterwards, clad in a warm green jacket, comfortable inside a heated interview room. “Any time you can get a sack on (Rodgers) in a game like that, in a big moment, it’s definitely a great feeling. Just to make my family proud. A lot of people cheering for me to prove them right. To make my parents proud is a great feeling.”
49ers special teams
The sack meant the Packers had to punt, giving San Francisco another desperate chance. But what happened next was the most stunning turn of a season rife with twists. The 49ers blocked the punt, with reserve defensive lineman Jordan Willis getting his hand on the boot from Corey Bojorquez.
With the ball bouncing around inside the Green Bay 10-yard line, rookie safety Talanoa Hufango scooped it up and scored, appearing as though he was the only player on the field to see it after Willis got his fingers on it. The shocking touchdown tied the game after it appeared the 49ers had no shot at winning. Per Next Gen Stats, San Francisco had a 10% probability of victory after turning the ball over on downs on the previous possession.
The result: a 13-10 victory in an instant classic in Green Bay. San Francisco became the fourth team in NFL history to win a postseason game without scoring an offensive touchdown. The 49ers are headed to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.
Armstead, the Elk Grove native and Pleasant Grove High School alum, was unquestionably one of the best players on the field. His two sacks of Rodgers on third down, in the fourth quarter, were two of the biggest plays of the game.
The second set up the blocked punt, which gave the 49ers the miraculous win capped by Robbie Gould’s 45-yard field goal as time expired.
“We just keep playing,” Armstead said. “We’re a confident in our abilities, I think we have a really talented team. And I feel like, especially playoff football. It’s kind of tailor-made for our style and what we want to do — as far as running the ball and playing great defense. We feel like we can win any game. We’re going to play hard until there’s zeroes on the clock and see what happens.”
Armstead leads 49ers defense
Armstead is a quiet leader who is becoming a dominant force. His two sacks Saturday night came less than a week after he had another crucial third-down sack in the win over the Cowboys. He had 2.5 sacks in the Week 18 victory over the Rams, which the 49ers needed to get to the postseason.
During the most important stretch of San Francisco’s ongoing campaign, Armstead has six sacks in his last four weeks, dating back to the must-win Week 17 game against Houston.
And five have come on third down.
“Incredible,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “And not a surprise at all. I think he’s been outstanding for us all season long and is just so unselfish, and one of the leaders of our team. That’s he wears the (captain’s C) on his chest. I’m not surprised at all. I think it was just a matter of time before he really started to — he was already balling, but I think people are just starting to notice now.”
The game didn’t start well for the defense. The Packers marched down the field with little resistance for a touchdown on their opening drive. Rodgers completed 4-of-5 for 54 easy yards, with three passes to star receiver Davante Adams, who appeared on his way to a big night after destroying San Francisco’s defense with 12 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown in the Week 3 defeat the Packers handed the 49ers in Santa Clara.
Rodgers finished a pedestrian 20-of-29 for 225 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. It was the second time in his 21-start postseason career he was held without a touchdown pass. The 49ers sacked him five times, with Bosa adding two and Samson Ebukam getting one.
“They had a good plan, for sure,” Rodgers said afterwards. “It was more of the pass rush. The pass rush was formidable, and I wasn’t able to get in that rhythm like last time we played them.”
Said Packers coach Matt LaFleur: “We probably were a little too pass-heavy and they took advantage of that. They’ve got a great pass-rush, obviously. They were able to hit home too many times.”
But that touchdown to open the game — a 6-yard run from A.J. Dillon — would be the only one scored by the Packers all night. They had nine possessions after the opening drive and mustered just three points. Seven of those possessions had one first down or fewer, continuing a hot streak for coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ defense. The 49ers in three consecutive must-win games, on the road, have beaten Matthew Stafford and the Rams, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, and Rodgers. That’s three franchise quarterbacks with nine-figure contracts.
49ers as underdogs
Saturday’s game was another that epitomized the 49ers underdog season. The team began the year 3-5, which included a four-game losing streak. They’ve had their back against the wall for the better part of three months, and some even wondered if head coach Kyle Shanahan was right for the job after failing to make the playoffs in three of his four seasons.
“I think our team has been through so many different situations this year that we just never overreact to anything,” Shanahan said, wearing ski-style overalls. “We just keep playing football. We have a bunch of guys on that team that I just like to call, ‘true football players.’ They really enjoy it. They enjoy watching it. They enjoy practicing. And they love playing. Those guys, they just don’t get discouraged. They don’t get frustrated at the other side of the ball. Guys just keep working and trying to have each other’s backs. We needed everyone today.”
Everyone includes Armstead, who is playing at the highest level of his career when his team needs him most. He was the focal point of San Francisco’s decision to trade DeForest Buckner before the 2020 season. The front office and Shanahan decided the team couldn’t pay Buckner and give Armstead, a pending free agent, new contracts, so Buckner was traded for a first-round pick and Armstead was re-signed to a five-year, $85 million contract after leading one of the best pass rushes in the NFL with 10.0 sacks.
But Armstead didn’t quite live up to expectations after landing the life-changing deal. He followed up his career year with 3.5 sacks while appearing in all 16 games in 2020. He finished the 2021 season with 6.0 sacks during the regular season, and 5.5 in the last three weeks. He’s played his best during the second half of the season when he switched from defensive end to defensive tackle, where he uses his strength and speed to overtake guards.
“Arik’s one of the best players in the league,” Bosa said. “He’s starting to show it here in the playoffs. Two of the most of crucial-moment sacks you could have (tonight). He’s a really hard worker and he’s been putting this work his whole career. He’s done a ton for this organization and I’ll always be thankful for him, for sure.”
How cold was it in Green Bay? It was 15 degrees at kickoff with a wind chill of zero. The Packers announced in the press box it was the fifth coldest game in Lambeau Field history. Armstead said he didn’t mind the cold. He had thermal sleeves and long tights underneath his pants.
“In terms of the weather,” Armstead said, “after we won, I didn’t want to leave the field. I was trying to stay out there.”
The 49ers don’t want this season to end. And they’ll be out there next week for the NFC Championship Game, either in Los Angeles for a rematch against the Rams or to Tampa Bay against Tom Brady.