SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The formula that fueled a perfect first half of the season for San Francisco was more than enough to carry the 49ers into the NFC championship game.
The Niners ran for 186 yards and completely shut down Minnesota’s offense in a 27-10 victory in the divisional round Saturday in San Francisco’s first playoff game in six years.
Being able to win convincingly despite a less than spectacular game from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo bodes well for the future.
“We have shown that we can win in a variety of different ways,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “We have had to really air out and make all of the plays in the passing game, when the run game wasn’t working. We have also had games like this when we run the ball well and control the clock. It really helps getting back everybody on defense. Our defense playing as terrific as they did today gives us the opportunity to really control the clock.”
After allowing only 11 points a game the first seven games, San Francisco (14-3) gave up 25.9 points per game the rest of the season as injuries to edge rusher Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt took a toll.
But with the bye week giving those three extra time to heal up, the Niners looked like the version from the first half of the season when they limited Minnesota to 21 yards rushing, a franchise playoff-record 147 yards and only seven first downs in a dominant performance.
“That is what we wanted to get back to,” Ford said. “Unfortunately, we had a little stretch of facing some tough offenses. Whether I was out there or not, we played some tough offenses. We had to fight through it, and we got through it.”
Pass rush. Ford’s return opened things up for the entire defensive line leading to a six-sack performance. Ford got one to force a field-goal attempt late in the first half following an interception by Garoppolo. Rookie Nick Bosa got two of his own, while Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas each got one. Ford’s speed off the edge opened up opportunities for everyone else on the defensive line.
“Just having his presence and his pass-rush ability, his knowledge and communication, he’s a true vet,” Bosa said. “It’s nice to have him out there.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Passing game. Garoppolo started fast in his first career playoff start, completing 5 of 6 passes for 57 yards and a 3-yard TD to Kendrick Bourne on the opening drive. Garoppolo then went 6 for 13 for 74 yards, an interception and a 32.2 rating the rest of the game. Garoppolo didn’t complete a single pass thrown beyond the line of scrimmage after the first drive of the second half with his only two completions coming on passes behind the line. That didn’t matter this game, but the Niners will likely need more from Garoppolo to keep this playoff run going.
RB Tevin Coleman. Coleman started the last nine games of the season even though he averaged only 3.2 yards per carry and 23.6 yards rushing per game. He rewarded coach Kyle Shanahan’s confidence by rushing for 105 yards on 22 carries with two TDs. He was the first 49ers running back to rush for at least 100 yards and two TDs in a playoff game since Terry Kirby did it Jan. 3, 1998, against Minnesota. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick also did it in the 2012 playoffs against Green Bay.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon committed a penalty and gave up two catches on the second drive of the game, including a 41-yard TD to Stefon Diggs. That was the fifth TD allowed by Witherspoon the past three games with San Francisco allowing no other TD passes in that span. Witherspoon was replaced by Emmanuel Moseley after and didn’t return until the fourth quarter, when he allowed another catch in place of Richard Sherman.
Coleman (elbow) and fellow running back Raheem Mostert (calf) both left the game late with injuries that were not believed to be serious.
47. The Niners set a franchise record for most runs in a playoff game and lost yardage on only two of those plays: a pair of kneel downs by Garoppolo. San Francisco ran on all eight plays on a key TD drive in the third quarter, the longest playoff drive for a TD without a pass since Chicago ran on all eight plays in the NFC title game against New Orleans following the 2006 season.
The Niners will host the NFC championship game Sunday against either Seattle or Green Bay. San Francisco is 6-9 during the Super Bowl era in conference title games, including 4-5 at home.
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