The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 49ers looked bad and still won. It’s exactly what they needed.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw had the game-clinching interception to beat the Green Bay Packers on Saturday. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP)
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers wear ease as well as any NFL team in recent memory. When they look good, they look good. They’re a blowout victory waiting to happen. Except for the Baltimore Ravens, there seems to be no opponent this postseason they can’t smash, outwork or fool.

With their pulverizing style, schematic innovation and difference-making talent, they’re a perennial championship-caliber squad. But there’s no trophy for having the look of a champion. The 49ers are merely the best team that hasn’t reached the ultimate level of greatness, and when pondering why, you’re left to fault the very thing that makes them so impressive.

Strain defines winners as much as ease. The 49ers never seem to experience difficulty until the stakes are too high to recover. For all the clobbering they have become known for under Coach Kyle Shanahan, they must handle struggle in a manner more appropriate for a team that plays with so much physical toughness. Their mission is not to be more dominant. Instead, it is to accept their imperfections, grind through games and succeed when they don’t look all that mighty and clever.

On Saturday night, the 49ers were as sloppy as the rainy conditions at Levi’s Stadium. Their 24-21 divisional-round victory over the Green Bay Packers was so full of inefficiency, mistakes and bad luck that the fiery Shanahan must have been raging inside. This was no stylish exhibition of ease. Almost nothing seemed to go right. The Packers, the NFL’s youngest team, played loose and controlled about 90 percent of this game. But San Francisco won anyway.

It was disappointing.

“Felt like a loss,” left guard Aaron Banks said. “Coming off the field, too close for comfort, man. F---ing stressful, man.”

It was a relief.

“This group that we have, I just did not want this to end,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “Nobody did.”

It was far more revealing than their customary beatdown.

“I thought that was as big of a mental challenge and just a character game as any game I’ve been a part of,” Shanahan said. “Gut check for everybody.”

Brock Purdy ‘could have been better.’ But his heroics proved a point.

San Francisco advanced to the NFC championship game for the fourth time in five seasons by showing a different side. The 49ers haven’t been much of a comeback team under Shanahan, not even when the task is a moderate lift. They entered the game with an 0-30 record during his seven seasons when trailing by at least five points at the start of the fourth quarter. The final 15 minutes began with Green Bay leading 21-14.

The coach’s zero-rally reputation must now be amended.

The question was never whether the 49ers, with an offense that specializes in creating explosive plays, were capable of a comeback. Their issues were about patience, composure and a perfectionist streak that can shift from blessing to burden quickly with Shanahan in charge. As an offense-centric coach, he sees football in dimensions others can’t fathom. He remixes classic power football concepts in a remarkable way, creating a high-speed, big-play style without veering into finesse territory. But at times he loses his way amid the demand to play to his highly specified and exacting standard. On his worst days, Shanahan can’t tolerate when the plan turns messy. And in the NFL, sustained excellence requires the ability to persist through plans gone awry.

To keep alive the 49ers’ best chance to win a Super Bowl with their current core, Shanahan and his players had to grind. On a squishy field, their offense had to deal with mishaps in the passing game. Quarterback Brock Purdy wasn’t sharp until the final drive. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel exited in the first half with a shoulder injury. The Packers dominated the time of possession early, forcing San Francisco’s defense to make timely plays in the red zone and other critical moments. Special teams play was an adventure.

“The whole day was just a little off,” Shanahan said.

So they just hung around, leaning on a roster with seven all-pro selections to perform at the right time. Christian McCaffrey ran for 98 yards and two second-half touchdowns, including the game-winning score with 1:07 remaining. Tight end George Kittle had a 32-yard touchdown reception. Despite being uncomfortable playing with a wet football, Purdy managed 252 passing yards and avoided throwing an interception. The San Francisco defense limited Green Bay to 330 yards and yielded just two touchdowns and two field goals during the Packers’ five trips to the red zone. And in the end, there was linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who intercepted Jordan Love twice, clinching the game with one final pick — and one meandering return when he should have immediately hit the ground.

Shanahan feared the worst: a fumble that would give the ball back to the Packers. But the game couldn’t be so cruel, not when the 49ers had shown so much resolve.

“I still have mixed emotions,” Shanahan said of watching Greenlaw’s final pick. “I can’t believe he didn’t get down right away, but that was kind of like the whole day. All the guys I would get really upset with are also the guys I have a lot of love for at the end, too, because they were the ones that pulled it off to get us the ‘W.’ ”

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The 49ers are unaccustomed to having to pull out victories. They prefer to plunder. During the regular season, they went 12-5. They won 11 of those games by double figures. In games decided by a touchdown or less, they were 1-3. Most teams can’t deal with San Francisco’s physicality, but for those that can stand, it’s a different situation.

The 49ers’ struggles against Green Bay aren’t really a cause for concern. They faced an ascending team with a hot young quarterback. It was a standard January dogfight, and the 49ers are better for showing they can take a punch.

“We needed that,” Bosa said. “We just haven’t come from behind in a while. It just helps you get more battle tested.”

San Francisco never fit the profile of a front-runner. It plays a style that should stand up to hardship. It has some of the most competitive players in the sport. It possesses character throughout the organization. But the 49ers have made winning look too easy.

This one was hard. This one challenged them to find answers and resist the urge to question themselves.

“It’s not a thing,” left tackle Trent Williams said when asked whether he had any doubt. “What’s the point in doubting until the clock ticks zero?”

For nearly 59 minutes, the 49ers were close to suffering the most deflating playoff loss of Shanahan’s tenure. They turned it into a chance to show a new layer. At the end of their frustration, they experienced a breakthrough.