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What we learned in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs


The 49ers’ offense didn’t score any touchdowns, but it did just enough to beat Green Bay on Saturday.

By Diante Lee


This weekend’s NFL divisional-round games provided a few surprises, beginning with the top seeds in both conferences getting tossed, Joe Burrow’s being sacked nine times overcoming Ryan Tannehill’s three interceptions and Aaron Rodgers’ earlier-than-predicted consideration of his next team.


Perhaps the biggest shock, however, is this: Jimmy Garoppolo is one plane ride and 60 minutes of game time away from his second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons. Despite an offensive performance in which yardage gains were hard to attain in Green Bay’s snowy weather, San Francisco escaped with a 13-10 win over the NFC’s top-seeded Packers and will face the Los Angeles Rams on the road in the conference championship game.


On Saturday night, playing through injuries to a hand and a shoulder, Garoppolo had just 131 passing yards on 19 attempts, with no touchdowns and an interception. His just-enough performance won’t tamp down the excitement of 49ers fans who have eagerly awaited the emergence of his understudy, rookie Trey Lance, who is set to lead the franchise into the future. But it was good enough, or as good as the Packers’ special teams, at toppling Green Bay, as was the case in the 49ers’ win in the NFC championship game for the 2019 season.


Now, as then, the 49ers are finding success without needing much from their quarterback, an ethos that flies in the face of modern football orthodoxy. So much has been made of the kind of quarterback play needed to win playoff games — on the road, especially — and Saturday only solidified Garoppolo’s legacy as a caretaker. But the 49ers’ season has spotlighted everything (gesturing wildly) required of the other 52 men on the roster.


The 49ers complement, but do not depend on, Jimmy Garoppolo.


Start with the offensive line, which has two potential Hall of Famers in Trent Williams and Alex Mack. In coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, which attacks the edges of defenses with the run game, having a center point out what is happening up front and a human steamroller at tackle puts the offense in position to feature the five players who are typically blamed before they are lauded.


Beside and behind the offensive line is a triumvirate of the most versatile players in football: Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. While the field in Saturday’s game was too slippery to use all of Shanahan’s play-actions, bootlegs and misdirection, each of those nearly positionless players was able to make plays.


All of Kittle’s four grabs and 63 yards felt like they came on make-or-break third downs, on slants and option routes against mismatches. Juszczyk converted several first downs as a ball carrier on “trap” plays, designed to get him downhill before Green Bay’s dominant front four could react. Samuel’s 142 all-purpose yards led all players, and, in such a close game, his 45-yard kick return to open the second half helped swing the momentum and field position in San Francisco’s favor.


Garoppolo couldn’t do much to push the ball downfield, but the screens and sweeps to Samuel created glorified kick/punt returns, opening the field for Samuel to create whatever he could.


In reality, the players who bear most of the credit for beating Aaron Rodgers were the same four who got the better of Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott in the wild-card round: the 49ers’ pass rushers. Nick Bosa and his running mates crushed and warped the pocket after Green Bay’s hot first quarter, finishing with five sacks and almost 20 total pressures. As the weather worsened and the stakes rose, Rodgers had less time and space to work, and the Packers gained just 58 total yards in the second half.


San Francisco’s zone coverage protected against deep shots meant for Davante Adams, and no Packers receiver could separate against underneath defenders when Adams was being bracketed in coverage.


Special teams created more than the 3-point margin of victory. After Garoppolo’s horrid interception, Jimmy Ward blocked a field-goal attempt that would have created a two-possession deficit for the 49ers before halftime. Then, with less than five minutes remaining, Jordan Willis blocked a punt that was scooped up by Talanoa Hufanga for a touchdown.


Mike Shanahan’s pupils are everywhere.


The leaders of three of the four teams in the NFC divisional round came from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, and two, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, will face off in the NFC championship.


Since McVay became the Rams’ head coach in 2017, Los Angeles and San Francisco have won the NFC West in four out of the five seasons — McVay holding a 3-1 edge. Including the Packers’ Matt LaFleur, the three coaches have seven division titles, and the past four NFC title games have featured at least one of them. This coaching tree is guaranteed a spot in the upcoming Super Bowl, and with the Bengals’ Zac Taylor in the opposite bracket, there’s a chance of an all-Shanahan system game.


Each of these head coaches were molded in the same scheme and terminology, but they all have their own flavor of offense. Kyle Shanahan, the only one raised in this system, is still true to the two-back offense his father implemented on his way to three Super Bowl titles, two as a head coach. McVay was pretty close to the original intent of the offense, but mixed in motion and jet sweeps to add another element of misdirection. With quarterback Matthew Stafford in tow, McVay has fully embraced empty sets and the drop back passing game.


The Shanahan system is like a good smartphone: it can do anything you want it to. Need to quarterback-proof your offense? Jared Goff and McVay showed the way. Looking for a downhill run game? Kyle Shanahan has you covered. For those more interested in the spread, Taylor’s embrace of vertical passes and run-pass options are the guide.


It’s a bad year to be a higher seed.


The two No. 1 seeds in the playoffs, Tennessee in the AFC and Green Bay in the NFC, are on their way to the comforts of their couches after losses as home favorites. The reigning champion, Tampa Bay, lost 30-27 to the Rams at home, and looked slower, older and more injured in the process.


Only Kansas City’s 42-36 overtime defeat of the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium prevented the weekend from becoming the first in the playoffs since the 2015 wild-card round in which all four road teams advanced.


All four home teams in the divisional round had glaring issues. The Packers had one of the NFL’s worst special teams units, and the 49ers took advantage. The Titans arrived in the playoffs hoping that running back Derrick Henry would jump out of the ice bath ready to carry the load, but the Bengals shut him down. Tampa Bay’s injuries on the offensive line and in the secondary limited Tom Brady and allowed Matthew Stafford to find Cooper Kupp on big plays.


Kansas City ranked seventh in turnover percentage, with a whopping 13.7% of its drives ending with a lost ball, but somehow managed not to turn the ball over against Buffalo’s top-rated defense.


The Bengals’ defense is the team’s real star.


One-on-one football has been the driving force for Cincinnati’s explosive offensive campaign. Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase have made defensive backs in the league look just like the hapless Southeastern Conference corners and safeties they torched on the way to a national title at Louisiana State in the 2019 season. It made sense that Tennessee’s corners focused on shutting down all the vertical passes by the Bengals’ offense Saturday.


The Titans could not account for D.J. Reader, the Bengals’ 6-foot-3, 330-pound defensive tackle, who was a singular force in the run defense against Henry, who averaged just 3 yards on his 20 tries. Reader’s six tackles (two for loss) allowed Cincinnati to deploy its defensive backs against play-action passes. When Ryan Tannehill got greedy on those throws, he was punished for forcing the ball into tight windows, throwing two of his three interceptions on such plays.


The Bengals may read as upstarts, but the reality is that Cincinnati has won games with explosive plays, the run game and now with its defense. It doesn’t matter if there are holes on the team’s roster, or if the stars lack experience. No one has exposed them. Yet.

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