GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the 45-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, giving San Francisco a 13-10 victory over Green Bay on a snowy Saturday night in Lambeau Field, 49ers long snapper Taybor Pepper raced to the end zone in pursuit of the football. Once the prized possession was in his hands, Pepper turned and sought out kicker Robbie Gould, who was in the corner of the end zone. Pepper dropped to a knee, bowed his head and lifted the ball skyward for Gould to receive.
It was a fitting and symbolic moment for the 49ers, who advanced to next week's NFC Championship Game largely because of their special teams. San Francisco, which will play the winner of Sunday's Rams-Buccaneers game for the right to appear in Super Bowl LVI, blocked a field-goal attempt near the end of the first half to keep it a one-possession game, returned the second-half kickoff 45 yards to set up a field goal, returned a blocked punt 6 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, then got the game-winner from Gould, who is 20-for-20 all-time on field-goal attempts in the playoffs.
As 49ers players and coaches raced onto the field to celebrate, some slipping on the light snow that covered the Frozen Tundra, the Packers could only think of what could have been. Their dream of a third consecutive trip to the conference final? Gone. Their hope of winning a Super Bowl in what could be quarterback Aaron Rodgers' final season in Green Bay? Over.
The suddenness of it all was particularly painful considering the Packers did not trail until the final kick. In fact, the night began promisingly for them: Rodgers led the offense to a touchdown on the game's opening possession, while Green Bay's defense held San Francisco to minus-15 yards on its first 13 offensive snaps. There was no hint or suggestion that the Packers' final nine possessions would go fumble, punt, punt, punt, blocked field goal, punt, field goal, blocked punt touchdown, punt.
If that sounds crazy for an offense led by Rodgers, the presumptive favorite to win a second consecutive league MVP, it was no more wild than 100-plus 49ers fans braving a sub-zero wind chill to remain along the lower railing long after the teams had cleared the field, hopeful that players might come out and greet them. A few did -- which was a few more than they had a right to expect -- but their willingness to hang around suggested that delirium might be the ultimate body warmer. Who cares if they couldn't feel their fingers or toes? What they could feel was the intense pleasure of supporting a team that is peaking at the right time -- much to the concern of anyone who will line up across from it.
The truly scary thing about the 49ers rebounding from a 3-5 start that included five losses in six games is that they showed they can win with more than offense or defense. That couldn't be said earlier in the year, when special teams consistently broke down. But on Saturday, when it mattered most, when they absolutely needed to show up, those units made their presence felt.
Now, let's take a look at the winners and losers from a stunning Saturday that saw both No. 1 seeds lose ...
Deebo Samuel: The Packers said all week there was no one else in the league like Samuel, who describes himself as a "wide back" -- wide receiver by name, running back by definition. What Samuel is is a badass. There is nothing he can't do. He set up the 49ers' first points with a 45-yard kickoff return; he came up with key catches and established a presence with physical runs. The stats might not look overly impressive (10 carries for 39 yards; three catches for 44 yards), but at times, Deebo imposed his will, even after taking a brutal hit that momentarily knocked him from the game. He appeared to be struggling to breathe on the sideline, but his continued excellence is enough to take away the breath of those watching him.
49ers' defense: Any time you give up an opening-drive touchdown and then keep Rodgers and the Packers out of the end zone for nine consecutive possessions, you deserve a game ball. The unit gave up 69 yards on the opening series, then allowed just 49 over the next four combined. And when there was a breakdown, like at the end of the first half when a busted coverage allowed Aaron Jones to get free for a 75-yard catch-and-run, special teams bailed the D out by blocking a field-goal attempt.
Robbie Gould: Much of the focus all week was on the weather and what impact it would have on the game. Gould seemed amused by the question, reminding everyone that he's familiar with kicking in such conditions. The veteran spent 11 seasons with the Bears and one with the Giants before joining the 49ers in 2017. Gould looked completely comfortable in the conditions and the moment, leaving no doubt on his 45-yarder to win the game.
The Bengals: Last week, they won a playoff game for the first time in 31 years. Saturday, they won a road playoff game for the first time in franchise history. They had been 0-9 away from home, with two of the defeats at neutral sites for the Super Bowl. The fact that the breakthrough came against the conference's top seed -- and was achieved following a takeaway and subsequent field goal as time expired -- made the accomplishment that much sweeter.
Evan McPherson: He was the only kicker selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, and he made good on it yet again by converting on each of his four field-goal attempts on Saturday, including the 52-yard game-winner. It was his second conversion from beyond 50 yards in the game and sent the Bengals to the conference final for the first time since the 1988 season, when they reached the Super Bowl. Equally remarkable is that McPherson is 18-for-18 on the road this season, including the playoffs. Not a bad return on a fifth-round selection. The former Florida Gator seems immune from pressure. He nailed a 38-yard field goal as the overtime clock expired in Week 1 to beat the Vikings, and in November, he tied an NFL record with three field goals of 50-plus yards in the same game.
Titans' pass rush: Tennessee consistently hurried and harried Joe Burrow en route to nine sacks (for 68 yards), oftentimes with a four-man rush. Jeffery Simmons was generally unblockable, finishing with three sacks, while Denico Autry and Harold Landry each added another 1.5. Were it not for the Bengals' takeaways and the accuracy of McPherson, the Titans' constant pressure on Burrow would have been the story of the game.
Ja'Marr Chase and Joe Burrow: You could give a separate nod to each, but they're so in sync it's hard to break them apart. Chase repeatedly came up with big catches -- the most crucial being a 19-yard gain with 15 seconds to play, setting up McPherson's game-winning kick -- and finished with 109 yards on five receptions. After a notable grab late in the game, he demonstratively signaled to the sideline to "feed me." In the postgame press conference following Cincinnati's wild-card win over Las Vegas, the rookie sensation stated, "I don't think I can be stopped," and no one has proven him wrong. As for Burrow (28-37, 348 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT), his ability to withstand the Titans' ferocious pressure and not flinch was huge. There was a sense that the hits would take a toll late in the game, like a boxer who has absorbed too many body blows. But that never happened to the second-year signal-caller, which is a significant reason why the Bengals advanced.
Eli Apple: Linebacker Logan Wilson gets the headlines for intercepting the pass that led to the decisive field goal, but the takeaway with 20 seconds remaining doesn't happen without the play of Apple, who deflected the ball into the air after sitting and breaking on the route. It was yet another savvy move by the sixth-year veteran who is with his third team in as many seasons and fourth team overall. It's not a stretch to say Apple has played a substantial part in the Bengals' season, solidifying one cornerback spot and providing timely plays throughout the year -- none bigger than Saturday's deflection.
Packers beat writers: The season may have ended, but the Rodgers watch now begins. Will he return to the Packers or won't he? Will he hang up his cleats or won't he? Rodgers didn't want to address those questions after the game, saying the emotions were still raw following the defeat. One positive, however, is that the uncertainty doesn't figure to last the entire offseason, as it did last year, when he stayed away from the club until training camp. If Rodgers wants to leave, he'll have to make that known before free agency or the draft, so potential suitors can plan accordingly. If he wants to return, he'll need to make that known before free agency, so the Packers can address roster concerns in the open market and the draft.
Packers' offense: Quite frankly, it just wasn't good enough. One touchdown and one field goal ... at home ... with a chance to go to the NFC title game for a third consecutive year -- gotta do better than that. Coach Matt LaFleur tried to accept responsibility afterward, which he rightfully should have done. He got away from the running game after the initial touchdown, making it easier for San Francisco to defend. When he did remember he had Aaron Jones, the offense picked up again. Some could say he lost A.J. Dillon to injury in the second half, but that doesn't explain forgetting about Jones for stretches.
49ers' penalties: The Niners need to be cleaner. In the opening drive of the second half, they had an opportunity to have first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, but running back Elijah Mitchell received a personal foul penalty for grabbing the defender's facemask. On the next play, the 49ers were called for an illegal formation. It went from first-and-goal to second-and-19, with San Francisco eventually settling for a field goal.
Aaron Rodgers: For all of his greatness, and it is vast, Rodgers is 0-4 against the 49ers in the playoffs. It was thought this might be his best chance -- and best team -- to end the drought, but it marked the first time in the four meetings that the Packers failed to score at least 20 points. That point cuts even deeper considering this was the first time in the four games that the Packers' defense held San Francisco to fewer than 23 points. Afterward, Rodgers talked about throws he missed and disappointment in the lack of execution and efficiency. Will he get another chance to get that first playoff win as a Packer against the Niners? All we can say is: Stay tuned.
Ryan Tannehill: When the Titans quarterback threw four interceptions in a loss to woeful Houston back in November, you thought he couldn't play any worse. Wrong. Tannehill was awful Saturday, throwing an interception on his first snap from scrimmage and his last snap from scrimmage. Overall, he threw three picks, the last of which Cincinnati turned into the game-winning field goal. The three picks were one off the career high he set against the Texans and could not have come at a worse time, as they provided the Bengals with three points to start the game and three more to end it.
Titans' third-down inefficiency: The Titans converted on just one of eight opportunities. The 12.5 percent conversation rate was their worst of the season, half their previous low of 25 percent (3 of 12) in a narrow Week 10 win over the Saints. They also were stopped on their one fourth-down attempt, with Derrick Henry losing 2 yards from the Cincinnati 35 in the fourth quarter.
Bengals' offensive line: The unit did some good things in the run game, but it was mostly horrendous in pass protection. As prolific as Chase has been, the line's performance was a reminder of why some believed the organization made a mistake by going wide receiver instead of offensive lineman with the No. 5 overall pick last April. Then again, going forward in the playoffs, the Bengals might not face as talented and relentless a pass rush as the one that gave them fits on Saturday.