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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

49ers escape with divisional playoff win against Packers

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner (54) celebrates after stopping Green Bay Packers wide reciever Jayden Reed, not pictured, short of a first down in the first quarter of an NFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.  (Tribune News Service)
By Jerry McDonald Mercury News

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – It was the sort of tense, nail-biting win that had eluded the front-running 49ers all season, but it arrived at the perfect time.

With their season on the line in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers scored on a 6-yard run by Christian McCaffrey with 1:07 to play and escaped with a 24-21 divisional playoff win Saturday night at Levi’s Stadium.

Dre Greenlaw’s interception of Jordan Love with 34 seconds to play sealed the verdict.

The 49ers (13-5) are one step from a world championship for the third straight season and will face the winner of Sunday’s divisional game between Tampa Bay (10-8) and Detroit (12-5) in a week for the right to advance to Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

It was the seventh consecutive win in the divisional round for the 49ers, with the last defeat coming 31-6 to Tampa Bay following the 2002 season. They lost the NFC championship game in each of the past two seasons, 31-7 to Philadelphia last season and 20-17 to the Los Angeles Rams following the 2021 season.

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the 49ers are 7-11 in 18 championship games, having last won 37-20 against the Packers after the 2019 season.

The 49ers scored on a 32-yard pass from Brock Purdy to George Kittle, a 39-yard run from McCaffrey and a 52-yard field goal by Jake Moody before McCaffrey scored with 1:07 to play on a 6-yard run.

The score capped a 69-yard drive on 12 plays and took 5:11 off the clock.

Green Bay had a 19-yard scoring pass from Jordan Love to Bo Melton (plus a 2-point conversion), a two-yard flip to Tucker Kroft and a pair of 29-yard field goals from Anders Carlson.

The 49ers drew within 21-17 on the first play of the fourth quarter on Moody’s 52-yard field goal, which was set up by a Greenlaw interception off a poorly-thrown Love deflected interception that went off the hand of Kroft.

The 49ers managed to drive just 14 yards with that gift, which to the Packers must have seemed like a victory.

McCaffrey’s 39-yard run for a touchdown with 7:39 left in the third quarter temporarily reversed the Green Bay momentum to cap a four-play, 75-yard drive in 1:48 for a 14-13 lead. Purdy and Kittle hooked up for a 32-yard completion on third-and-6 to set up the score.

The scoring play came on a toss to McCaffrey, who cut back toward the middle, found the seam and went the distance. The celebration was short-lived. Green Bay’s Keisean Nixon returned the ensuing kickoff 73 yards before being stripped by Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, with the Packers’ Eric Wilson jumping on the fumble.

That set up the 2-yard flip from Love to Kraft, with Love completing a 2-point conversion pass to running back Aaron Jones to give Green Bay a 21-14 lead.

Niners coach Kyle Shanahan’s love for “lapping” the opponent by scoring before halftime and again to open the third quarter went up in smoke when Moody had a 48-yard field-goal attempt blocked before half and the 49ers going three-and-out to open the third quarter.

To make matters worse, Green Bay followed that with a 75-yard drive that finished with 19-yard touchdown pass from Love to Melton and a 13-7 lead. Melton broke free to his right at the same time safety Tashaun Gipson was losing his footing.

Play of the secondary is also what put the Packers in position to score, with Ambry Thomas clearly fouling Melton for a 41-yard gain to the 19. On third-and-15, no less.

The 49ers lost an opportunity for a 10-6 halftime lead when Green Bay’s Colby Wooden blocked Moody’s 48-yard field-goal attempt with 10 seconds remaining, a play that looked more like an exceptional play for Wooden than it did a poor effort from Moody.

The numbers were relatively even with the 49ers leading by a point and gaining 153 yards to 174 for the Packers. Purdy was 10 of 16 for 125 yards and a touchdown, Love 10 of 16 for 115 yards.

Regardless, Green Bay looked nothing like a team that was either tired or overmatched in facing the 49ers. The 49ers also came out of the half realizing they’d be without Samuel, who first went to the blue tent for a concussion evaluation and later left with a shoulder injury.

Green Bay got within 7-6 on a 29-yard Carlson field goal following the 49ers’ first scoring drive. The drive included a blown coverage which allowed Jayden Reed to gain 27 yards on a pass from Love, and a perfect reverse roll throw from Love to Romeo Doubs for 22 yards to the 9.

A fourth-and-1 stop at the 14-yard line courtesy of Greenlaw set the stage for the 49ers’ first lead, with Purdy throwing a 32-yard strike to Kittle for a 7-3 lead with 8:42 left in the half.

On a third-and-5 play, Kittle got outside leverage on Darnell Savage with Purdy breaking to his right and leading him perfectly for the touchdown.

The Packers, who had the ball for 11:47 of the first quarter, were threatening to build on their 3-0 lead when coach Matt LaFleur opted to go for the first down rather than kick another field goal. Love was shoved from behind but came up short by the barest of margins.

It set the stage for a 12-play, 86-yard drive with Purdy finding Jauan Jennings for 16 yards in traffic for a key first down.

Green Bay opened with a 14-play, 58-yard drive with Carlson kicking a 29-yard field goal when the drive stalled at the 49ers 11-yard line.

The Packers failed to get a touchdown when Charvarius Ward broke up a third-down end zone pass to Doubs. Green Bay won the toss and elected to receive to put the 49ers on defense, something LaFleur also did in the wild-card win over Dallas and three regular-season games toward the end of the season. A 13-yard pass interference against Thomas got Green Bay close.

Jones had 26 yards on six carries on the opening drive.

The 49ers’ opening possession was a disaster which included a false start on Aaron Banks, a near-interception by Purdy and a Samuel getting sent to the blue tent for concussion observation. Purdy’s second pass, intended for Aiyuk, went directly to Savage, who had a 64-yard pick six in the previous week’s win over Dallas. Savage again looked as if he had room to run, but dropped the ball.

If that wasn’t enough, it ended when Purdy was sacked by Preston Smith and Kenny Clark on third-and-6.