SANTA CLARA — The 49ers’ are one win away from the Super Bowl, and it’s not luck, magic, or whimsy that has them on the precipice.
No, it was grit. It was resolve. It was toughness.
Those things have shown up all season for this Niners’ team, but they came through in spades on Sunday in the biggest game of the season to date.
In both the physical and mental realms, the Niners tapped into their identity in the second half of their NFC Divisional Round matchup with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Niners were tougher, smarter, and better than Dallas in the final 30 minutes.
That’s why San Francisco won 19-12. That’s why they’ll play the Eagles Sunday in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia.
Make no mistake, the Niners’ long-time rivals were worthy adversaries on Sunday. Dallas was flying on defense and picking up big yardage on offense in the first half.
They took the Niners out of their game.
San Francisco had only 27 yards rushing in the first half, averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Christian McCaffrey — the Niners’ do-it-all running back and prized mid-season acquisition — couldn’t find a lane, picking up only eight yards on five carries.
But the Niners’ defense was matching Dallas’, intercepting Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott twice, and kicking field goals.
That’s why the Niners carried a 9-6 lead into the halftime break.
And when the Niners came back in the second half, they started swinging.
There was nothing pretty about the Niners’ winning effort, but that’s not a problem — style points don’t go on the scoreboard.
Ultimately, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers are a run-first team. They were not going to abandon that game plan in a moment of possible crisis.
No, instead, they doubled down. The Niners ran 22 times in the second half for 86 yards.
The second-half runs were a bit different, and the Niners used running back Elijah Mitchell 13 times (48 yards) after he carried the ball one time in the first half, but the real difference was that the Niners’ offensive line found another gear, and the running backs packed an extra punch.
More importantly, they ran for first downs. They held onto the ball. They controlled the game.
“We felt we really had to run the ball to negate their pass rush,” Shanahan said. “We got it going a little bit, wore ’em down a little bit.”
“If you wear ’em down a little bit, then you have a chance, and it took us all game to do that.”
The Niners went three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, but they followed that with a six-minute drive to score the game-winning touchdown, highlighted by George Kittle’s bobbed catch down the middle for 30 yards.
Kittle didn’t run the play as designed. He felt space, he ran into space, and 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, who had no reason to look Kittle’s way, did just that.
“I just have to lead him and hit him,” Purdy said. “It seemed like it was 10 seconds of bobbling.”
“We needed something. We needed a spark to get the ball rolling. For Kittle to make a play like that, you feel it in the whole stadium.”
The Niners capped that drive with a McCaffrey touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Niners weren’t done, though. They saved their best for second-to-last.
After a Dallas field goal cut the Niners’ lead to four points with 11:03 to play, the Niners ran an eight-minute drill.
Yes, an eight-minute drive, going 64 yards down the field to answer Dallas’ field goal with 3:04 remaining in the fourth.
The Niners possessed the ball for all but 5:39 in the fourth quarter.
If that’s not playoff football, I don’t know what is.
“We just stuck with it. You could just feel guys… not panicking,” McCaffrey said.
The Niners have a third-string quarterback at the helm — a rookie, no less. Their once indomitable defense had been struggling going into Sunday’s game. They were getting kicked around by a Dallas team that had revenge (from last year’s Niners’ playoff win in Texas) on their mind.
A trip to the NFC Championship Game might have been part of the 49ers’ plans for this season, but that doesn’t mean the path they took to reach the NFL’s final four for a second straight season isn’t worthy of plaudits.
Lesser teams would have found ways to flounder — to lower the bar.
Well, this Niners team did go low Sunday. They dug deep, trusted in their abilities, and ground their way to a massive win, the team’s twelfth straight.
The Niners will need more than what they showed on Sunday to beat the Eagles (Philadelphia is a two-point home favorite), but they have a shot and have shown us time and time again – and no more so than on Sunday — that this is a squad you can never count out, no matter what the circumstance might be.
If you haven’t learned, bet against these Niners at your peril.
These Niners are winners. Don’t be surprised if they make it 13 straight wins next week.
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