The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Brock Purdy looks to pass during the first half of Saturday's game against the Green Bay Packers. Purdy wasn't sharp through much of the game, but he led the offense to a late touchdown to seal the win. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
5 min

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After his postgame news conference, in which he delivered a steady, sober analysis of why he “could have been better,” San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy walked off the stage and ran into tight end George Kittle.

“You’re so good at those,” Kittle said, grinning, seemingly teasing.

“Love you,” Purdy replied, straight-faced.

In the hallway outside, chaotic with fans and family, everyone wanted a piece of Purdy. It looked overwhelming, all shouts and Sharpies and smartphones. But Purdy maintained the unflappable cool he had shown on the field Saturday during the 49ers’ 24-21 comeback win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round at Levi’s Stadium. He posed and nodded and said, “Thank you, sir.”

It was hard to tell the 24-year-old had just overcome one of the shakiest starts of his career on one of the game’s biggest stages to deliver his star-studded squad to the NFC championship game next Sunday against the Detroit Lions.

The comeback felt like a milestone for Purdy because he has rarely faced such challenges. Before the game, he was 19-5 as a starter, with an average margin of victory of 11.5 points. He had just one fourth-quarter comeback and one game-winning drive in his career. But in the locker room Saturday night, teammates insisted he has the composure to rise to the moment — just as he did against the Packers.

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“If you give [Purdy] that time, [he’s] going to make you pay,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “He’s been doing it all year. The lights are never too bright for 13, man. Like I’ve been saying all year, I’m happy he’s my quarterback.”

“It’s f---ing awesome, man,” left guard Aaron Banks said. “If a quarterback comes in [the huddle] and he’s nervous, he’s jittering in his voice, everybody feels that. But he’s confident every time and calls the plays and is very decisive.”

“Brock, he made some big plays in this game,” Coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Missed a couple, [too]. But leading us down on that last drive and getting the win, that’s all you can ask for.”

Early on, Green Bay stifled San Francisco with what’s known as a 6-1 defense. The Packers put six defenders on the line of scrimmage to torpedo outside zone, the running scheme Shanahan uses to set up the rest of his offense. The 49ers couldn’t run the ball effectively, and Purdy couldn’t really punish the Packers downfield. The Packers couldn’t really punish Purdy either, though, dropping a couple of interceptions.

Sometimes Purdy appeared to be struggling in the heavy rain. He started with a glove on his throwing hand, then took it off as the drizzle turned into a downpour. He still missed throws and had a harder time getting back on schedule without injured wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who excels at generating yards after the catch.

Occasionally, Purdy delivered beautiful strikes, especially into tight windows over the middle. His persistence despite his misses paid off as three such throws between the numbers keyed touchdowns, including a remarkable one on the final drive to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

Purdy remained confident throwing over the middle because Shanahan’s scheme demands it. It’s often the most vulnerable part of the field, and on Saturday night, Purdy threw 20 of his 39 attempts to in-breaking routes, completing 13 of them for 174 of his 252 yards. It was the 10th time this season Purdy had targeted in-breaking routes on more than 50 percent of his pass attempts, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. No other quarterback has more than three such games.

San Francisco got the ball back at its 31 trailing 21-17 with 6:18 to play. Purdy started orchestrating with short, crisp passes. By then, Green Bay had shifted from 6-1 to dropping seven, but Shanahan seemed to notice the coverages focused on the middle of the field. So near midfield with 3:05 left, he called a counterpunch.

“We wanted to get some out-breakers because we felt like we had leverage on cornerbacks who were just sitting,” wide receiver Chris Conley said.

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Purdy hadn’t practiced as much with Conley, a 31-year-old journeyman who spent most of the year on the practice squad and was filling in for Samuel. But Purdy hit him in stride on a corner route for 17 yards.

“Brock just trusted it and threw a hell of a ball,” Conley said. “He could work either side of the field; just thankful he worked mine. We were able to make the play happen, and the rest is history.”

Five plays later, the 49ers scored the touchdown that gave them the lead for good. Purdy finished the last drive 6-for-7 passing for 48 yards.

Before he ran off the field, before he put on his hoodie and blue jeans and cowboy boots, before he went into his news conference, Purdy stopped to talk Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews. He told her he had to be better, more efficient, but he seemed proud of his resilience.

“When I watch the film down the road in my life, that’ll be a good one to watch,” he said.

But the most notable thing wasn’t what he said. It was that he was there at all. Purdy had started the fourth quarter down by a touchdown and still ended up the winning quarterback.