Kawakami: This was the playoff comeback the 49ers needed, especially Brock Purdy

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — You want to know who held Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers to task on Saturday, with time running out, rain pouring down, Deebo Samuel out injured, and the Green Bay Packers just a play or two away from a huge playoff upset?

Want to know who assigned responsibility and called on the 49ers to fight during their long struggles? Who set all the possible consequences? That would be Purdy and every other member of the 49ers, who got to this place with one of their most puzzling performances of the season.

They got the ball back with 6:13 left in the game after the Packers missed a field goal. They trail the 49ers by four points. They needed to land. And they knew that this was probably their last realistic chance to figure out how to avoid a devastating loss in this qualifying match. So once the offense got into the huddle, Trent Williams gave a short speech.

“I just told them, with six minutes left in the game, this might be the last time we get the ball. If we don’t do something about it, this might be the last time we’re in this huddle together,” Williams recalled. “So whatever you have, just bring it. Bring it to the next play, bring it to the play after that, and then let the rest take care of itself.

They all felt it. The 49ers were at Levi's Stadium, set up as NFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl, and they felt just that. What happened next: Purdy came out of the funk and started completing passes, Brandon Aiyuk made a huge diving catch on third down, Purdy rushed inside the Packers' 10-yard line, and finally Christian McCaffrey rushed for a 6-yard touchdown that put the 49ers ahead finally. Dre Greenlaw then sealed the 49ers' 24-21 win by intercepting Jordan Love's ill-advised cross-body move in the final minute.

But oh yeah, the 49ers felt it. And no one felt it more than Purdy. About an hour into the game, you could see they were still feeling it – all the adrenaline, all the disappointment of playing so randomly in such a big game, all the importance and all the relief. The 49ers saw their playoff lives flash before their eyes on Saturday … and thanks to that final set of plays, they're still alive with a spot in the NFC Championship game at Levi's on Jan. 28, facing the winner of the Lions-Buccaneers game on Sunday.


Dre Greenlaw runs with the ball after intercepting a Green Bay pass in the fourth quarter to seal the win for the 49ers. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Associated Press)

They live. They know a little more about themselves now than they did after all their easy wins this season. (But so do their opponents.)

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“At some point, you're in a bad situation and you have to find a way,” Purdy said. “It's the fourth quarter, it's the NFL. Obviously we're in the postseason now. We were all like, OK, this is it. This is our season. For us to capitalize on that was big. For every one of us.”

“Obviously for me as a midfielder that's good for confidence and all that. But we have a lot of good players on this team, a lot of players who make a difference. We have a great defense. For us not to find a way, it's not right. So, To finally play a match like this and succeed was great for all of us.

Nick Bosa pointedly said the 49ers need a game like this and pointed out that they have lost all of their close games this regular season and won all of their blowouts. More than anyone else, Purdy needed something like this. Of course, the 49ers never want to see Purdy wobble for longer than three quarters like he did Saturday. The 49ers never want to be outscored like the Packers outplayed them for most of this game.

But the 49ers also needed to see Purdy rise from struggle and find success. They needed him to be more than just a great racer. They needed him to climb out of a hole and win that damn game, and he went 6 of 7 on that final drive, looking completely calm (“It was Brock, and he couldn't say anything”), Williams said of that moment. And he looks a lot like the guy who led the NFL in passer rating and broke the 49ers' single-season record for passing yards this season.

So what was going on in this game for Purdy before that? The rain certainly gave him some trouble, in the same way that wet weather in Cleveland earlier this season seemed to trouble him. At times on Saturday, Purdy wiped his right hand even as he came back to pass.

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“Obviously I had a glove on on the first drive,” Purdy said. “It was coming off in a drizzle, so I took it off. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I kind of got tired of the gloves. … Yeah, there were times I backed off when the ball was a little bit wet off the turf. It kind of affected some “Accuracy and stuff. But that's football. I have to be better than that.”

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However, that's no problem if the weather is dry next Sunday at Levi's and certainly not at all if the 49ers reach the Super Bowl at Allegiant Indoor Stadium in Las Vegas in February.

Purdy also said the Packers defense did a good job of cutting off his deep options and forcing him to go to his own checkdowns. After that, Purdy spent most of the game rushing those checks, often due to incompletions. Also, while the Packers only recorded one sack in the game, the pass rush seemed to bother Purdy — altering his throwing lanes and causing him to move his feet while throwing, leading to a few wild passes that the Packers could have easily taken. I objected but fell down.

This could be an issue for the 49ers in the next few weeks, since Purdy also looked quite uncomfortable against the Ravens on Christmas, and the Ravens could very well be the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl. But Purdy seemed to have resolved something in his head during that last trip; If they're begging you to take the easy pass, and the easy pass can get you down the field, just take the easy pass. Don't let past mistakes ruin you when it matters most.

“We had what we wanted right in front of us, so you have to clean up the slate,” Purdy said. “You've got to have a clean mind and not try to force anything. Take what the defense gives you. Find a way, man.”

On that final drive, Purdy completed short passes that were there and then squeezed a crucial 17-yard drive to Chris Conley. His only incompletion of the series came when George Kittle — who had the 49ers' best offensive performance, going for a 32-yard TD in the second quarter and 81 yards overall — dropped another short one, which Purdy followed up with a dart to Aiyuk on third down.

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“The whole day was a little off,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But the guys stuck with it. Even second-and-six at the end, getting that touchdown gets us to third-and-six, and then British Airways made a great play to keep us in the field.”

Another possible reason for the 49ers' bumpy offensive play: the two-week layoff, counting Week 18 when Purdy and several other frontliners missed the senseless loss to the Rams bye last weekend.

“I don’t know, maybe it was,” Shanahan said. “It could have been rain, it could have been good defence. But those are the things you have to talk about. We handled it the best we could.”

Purdy, who was 23 for 39 on the day for 252 yards and 1 TD, for an 86.7 passer rating, wasn't the only 49ers player struggling in this game, of course. The defense struggled through a few missteps and fouls against Love and his receivers and gave up a huge 53-yard touchdown run to Aaron Jones. The 49ers' special teams also took a hit — the coverage unit gave up a 73-yard kickoff return to Keisean Nixon and Jake Moody had a 48-yard field goal attempt deflected at the line.

But the defense made Greenlaw's interception to seal the game, in addition to another interception earlier, and stopped Green Bay in the red zone several times. Moody made up for his earlier miss with a 52-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter that brought the 49ers within 21-17.

“Things were not perfect by any means,” Shanahan said. “I was very disappointed. But I'm also very proud and proud that we're going to play another week.

Quite frankly, the 49ers played the kind of playoff game that usually results in a team being eliminated. There would have been harsh criticism around the NFL if the 49ers and Purdy had lost this game. And the 49ers and Purdy knew all that, as time went on and they got into that huddle. There was a season for preservation. Now there may be two more games left to play.

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Dre Greenlaw didn't go down, and neither did the 49ers thanks to him

(Top image by Brooke Purdy: Theron W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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