SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After holding Aaron Rodgers to 104 passing yards in a 29-point win over the Packers on Nov. 24, the sometimes-braggadocious 49ers defense did not gloat.
Members of San Francisco’s secondary instead took caution with their words. Each postgame quote that night involved praise of Rodgers — even in the responses to questions intended to draw out boasts. When safety Jimmy Ward was asked about a full-stretch pass breakup, he said “it was just classic Aaron Rodgers scrambling, throwing it deep with great accuracy” and that he had simply been in the right place to force an incompletion. Cornerback Richard Sherman said, “Whenever you play a Hall of Famer like that, you never know,” and warned about overconfidence against someone of that caliber.
The 49ers’ subdued public attitude toward the Packers shifted following their NFC championship game rematch Sunday, when the team shut down Rodgers again to claim a 37-20 victory. This time, the mood was more brash. Rodgers, now eliminated, did not need to be feared. The team was free to talk up its performance and its superiority over Green Bay.
“We took our starters out in the fourth quarter of that (first) game,” Sherman said. “They were trying to hype themselves up like, ‘Man we’re gonna be ready this time.’ You weren’t ready the first time, and that was in front of the whole country. That was a Sunday night game, it wasn’t like it was just a middle-of-the-day 1 o’clock game.”
Added defensive lineman Solomon Thomas: “We know how to beat the biggest teams.”
IYER: How 49ers built Super Bowl team in three years
Coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense not only continued its domination of Rodgers, but also its ownership of opponents around the NFL. It held Rodgers to 64 passing yards in the first half one week after keeping Kirk Cousins muted in the NFC divisional round. It recorded three sacks and three takeaways. Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga compared the smothering group to the Seahawks’ peak defense in 2013.
The defense, then, will be a primary focus in the build-up to the Super Bowl matchup with Kansas City in two weeks. It feels ready for that attention. After dismantling Rodgers, confidence is high enough that it does not believe its opponent matters.
“It’s very simple,” said defensive end Dee Ford. “Play together, we dominate.”
Rodgers appeared out of sorts from the opening drive, when he failed to convert third-and-3 from near midfield. Usually able to limit mistakes, he committed several critical errors. He botched a snap. He threw two interceptions. He circled backward in the pocket in his trademark style but uncharacteristically could not evade pass-rushers.
SUPER BOWL ODDS
Chiefs open as slight favorite
The California native dropped to 2-6 all time in the playoffs against NFC West teams and 0-3 against the 49ers.
“He’s a different quarterback when he’s under duress,” said defensive end Nick Bosa. “It changes the game.”
While Rodgers helped the Packers keep the final score respectable by leading three second-half scoring drives, his success came mostly when the 49ers sagged off in coverage to protect their large lead. And his night concluded as it began: with disappointment.
After finding a rhythm with top receiver Davante Adams late in the contest, Rodgers targeted Adams with a desperate downfield heave with under two minutes remaining. Sherman, who had been beaten once by Adams earlier in the half, intercepted the throw to seal the contest. Not needing to advance the ball, Sherman lay down like a snow angel, his arms and legs spread wide. Teammates mobbed him as a defeated Rodgers walked off for the final time this season.
MORE: Darrelle Revis says Sherman scared of getting beat in man coverage
Rodgers said afterward that the gap between his team and the 49ers was not as wide as it seemed, but the distance between them sure felt significant Sunday.
“They’re, right now, the gold standard of the NFC,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “They were better, faster and more physical than us tonight.”
San Francisco is now headed to Miami, where it will face the Chiefs on Feb. 2. The 49ers last appeared in a Super Bowl in the 2012 season. They last won it in the 1994 season with Steve Young under center.
Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes will almost certainly get the cautious public treatment the team gave Rodgers. Mahomes is shaping up to be one of the best passers of his generation, and at 24, he might be more advanced than Rodgers was at his age. The 49ers prefer to do their talking until after finishing the job against dangerous passers.
Conquer the Chiefs, though, and this group will no longer have anything left to be reserved about. The Super Bowl represents the final check on the team’s simmering bravado.