So much for the playoff inexperience of the 2019 San Francisco 49ers. Their first postseason experience with coach Kyle Shanahan in Levi’s Stadium could have been confused with the great performances of their storied playoff past.
The 49ers dominated the Vikings 27-10 in Saturday’s divisional playoff game, advancing to host next week’s NFC championship game (6:40 p.m. ET, Fox) against the Packers, who beat the NFC West runner-up Seahawks on Sunday. Regardless of that result, San Francisco is headed to its first Super Bowl in seven years.
Forget Shanahan’s team challenging Jim Harbaugh’s success. The 49ers’ blowout victory, which wasn’t even as close as the final score indicates, channeled the five-ring heyday of Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
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There was the familiar precision and efficiency on offense. There was the fully loaded shutdown mentality on defense. Although Jimmy Garoppolo’s playoff debut (11-of-19, 131 yards, TD, INT, 6.9 yards per attempt, 74.9 rating) won’t go down with the best of Joe Montana or Steve Young, or even Jeff Garcia, Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick, the fact that the 49ers won so easily despite that was incredible.
The 49ers had only two relevant blemishes in an almost perfect game — Garoppolo throwing the ball to linebacker Eric Kendricks on a telegraphed play-action pass, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon being outrun by wide receiver Stefon Diggs for a 41-yard TD on a deep ball from Kirk Cousins. Otherwise, the Niners outrushed Dalvin Cook and the Vikings, 186-21. They had three times as many first downs (21 to 7) and sacks (6 to 2) and nearly doubled up Minnesota in time of possession (38:27 to 21:33). The 49ers were 5-of-12 in converting third downs and 3-of-5 in converting touchdowns in the red zone.
The first possessions of the game set the tone. The 49ers’ defense forced an easy three-and-out. The 49ers’ offense opened with an eight-play, 81-yard TD drive that involved two running backs (Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman) and four receivers (Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders, George Kittle and Kendrick Bourne).
There was a methodical approach to get everyone involved and prove just how many great players the 49ers have, with some old-school swag. They had the “Joe Cool” free-and-loose feelings with Montana in the building. That was fueled most by the energy of Kittle, their All-Pro tight end who sported shoes inspired by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in pregame warmups. Just like Ronnie Lott and Deion Sanders once did from the secondary, Richard Sherman brought the physical, wire-to-wire intensity to the defense.
In their three seasons under Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, the 49ers have aggressively stacked their roster with starting-caliber draft picks, key free agents (such as Sherman) and one big trade target (Garoppolo) in adding to previous first-round assets. The 49ers’ Super Bowl dynasty took advantage of both before and after (see Sanders) modern free agency.
With Shanahan and Lynch having great Super Bowl experience from their pedigrees and past influences, they have created a throwback juggernaut in San Francisco. The only question with the 49ers down the stretch in 2019 was how healthy they would be, a question that has derailed past promising versions.
That has been answered in resounding fashion.
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Getting defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt all back after the first-round bye was monumental for the 49ers against the Vikings. Ford helped free up Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner for sacks, too. Alexander raised the play of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw on the second level. After Witherspoon’s lapse, Tartt boosted Sherman, Jimmie Ward and Emmanuel Mosley in the secondary.
Even with a rash of injuries offensively, the 49ers aren’t lacking in diverse weapons, down to the ever-underrated fullback play of Kyle Juszczyk. The personnel and formations give Shanahan endless possibilities. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is now having the same kind of fun with his depth restored, inside and out.
The 49ers didn’t have a sudden turnaround to get to this point. It was a slow build, completed by the drafting of Bosa and Samuel, the signing of Coleman, Ford and Alexander and the trade for Sanders.
The fading and limited Vikings had little chance to compete with that. Don’t expect the Packers to figure the 49ers out in the latter’s current state, either.
Green Bay was spared the full wrath of the 49ers in the regular season, as their matchup featured San Francisco being short of key difference-makers on either side of the ball.
The Packers got destroyed 37-8 in November in San Francisco. They couldn’t stop the 49ers’ principal backs and receivers, with Kittle (6 catches, 129 yards and a TD on 6 targets) being the most unstoppable. They also couldn’t protect Aaron Rodgers or find anything downfield in the passing game.
This is more about the 49ers than who they are playing. There was plenty of evidence against the Vikings they are an undaunted, well-oiled machine, one that takes them back in time to resemble their best-ever playoff teams.
The 49ers and the Super Bowl used to be synonymous. Shanahan’s version is just getting started writing a similar chapter.