SANTA CLARA, California. — The most important race of the night may not have been Christian McCaffrey’s. Or Deebo Samuel. Or even George Kittle in one of his epic catches and runs.
No. It was probably because of the game director. The Lions’ most exciting, grueling and taming runs, one could argue, were those of Brock Purdy, the driver of a 17-point comeback in the San Francisco 49ers’ 34-31 victory Sunday over Detroit in the NFC. . Championship game.
“I’m blocking my man, and the next thing I know, I hear screaming,” left guard Aaron Banks said from the 49ers locker room party at Levi’s Stadium after the game. “And Brock is 20 yards downfield.”
One candidate was Purdy’s 21-yard run on second-and-11 in the third quarter. He came out over the middle and turned on his baby burners to get away from Lions defensive back Brian Branch. Two plays after the defense forced a turnover, Purdy gave the 49ers a first-and-goal at the Detroit 4-yard line. McCaffrey finished the drive with a 1-yard score to tie the game at 24.
Purdy takes off for 21 yards!
-NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
Purdy’s run was a symbol of the 49ers’ aggressive mood. Red zone issues wouldn’t get in the way this time. A field goal was not an option.
He could have scored himself if it weren’t for Samuel.
“He crashed into me and bounced,” Samuel said. “I feel like if he had made that block, he probably would have scored.”
Another candidate was Purdy’s impressive fight on the first play of the next series. McCaffrey missed the block while attacking Detroit safety Ifatu Melifonwu. But Purdy ducked under what would have been an 8-yard catch on the first down, turned to his left and slid toward the sideline. Before being tackled, he launched a laser down the sideline toward Kyle Juszczyk for a first down. It was the first play of the series that produced the go-ahead field goal. It was the first sign that Purdy was in his bag.
Purdy magic in full effect 🪄
-NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
Another option, perhaps the best, was his third-and-4 run on what amounted to the winning drive to send the 49ers to the Super Bowl against Kansas City. With just under five minutes left and the 49ers just on the other side of midfield, Detroit was desperate to stop him. But Purdy reached into his pocket and came out again. He slipped from the clutches of Lions sack specialist Aidan Hutchinson, slipped from the clutches of linebacker Jack Campbell and outran linebacker Alex Anzalone to the rim.
After running down the field and into open space, Purdy didn’t slip. He dove in head first. Because he wanted every meter. Because scared money doesn’t make money. Because championships are not won with passivity.
Brock Purdy continues to do damage with his legs!
-NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
Purdy has been pigeonholed by many as the prototypical game manager. A passenger more than a driver. A beneficiary rather than a benefactor. More a preventer of losses than a recovery of victories. The label game manager is basically a pejorative in modern quarterback discourse.
But on Sunday, the 49ers needed something more. Their season was at stake. Their championship hopes were fading.
Purdy became who they needed him to be: a playmaker, a difference maker. In the second half, he was 13 of 16 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown. No interceptions. His 49 rushing yards were the best evidence that he was not simply a passenger in this historic comeback. He was driving.
“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said of Purdy’s struggle. “He made some big plays with his legs, coming out of the pocket, moving the chains on some first downs, some explosives. He competed big time today. It wasn’t easy for any of us. He kept grinding. He was amazing there in the second half.”
In the NFC divisional round, Purdy overcame his struggles to find success on the final drive, leading the 49ers to the game-winning score. He outdid himself for the NFC title, leading San Francisco from 17 points down.
He orchestrated a 27-point streak in five consecutive drives, flipping the script for the Lions.
“When I’m down 17 at the half,” Purdy said, “I honestly think, ‘Okay, God. You have brought me here. Win or lose, I will glorify you.’ That is my peace. That’s the joy. That is firmness. I got it from there. That is the pure truth”.
Detroit had an important influence on its own deaths. Let passes pass. Pass the field goals in favor of the pride and the boss. Purdy made sure that all of his misdeeds were punished.
It was more than enough to add some texture to the Purdy debate. At least to make his detractors think. At least to acknowledge the possibility that his ceiling is even higher than his halo. He may not be on the level of likely MVP Lamar Jackson or the uber-talented Josh Allen. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are the most coveted talents.
But Purdy’s not home.
“I don’t have enough good things to say about Brock,” McCaffrey said. “The only thing he’s done since he got here is play at an elite level. And it all starts with him. We’re lucky he’s our quarterback. He gets a lot of heat for no reason. All he has done is be a great leader and a great player.”
Purdy doesn’t have a big arm. Or dazzling athleticism. His inexperience is noticeable at times. The precision of it may abandon you. He’s had enough interceptions to convince you that he must be living well. He posted some amazing statistics, including him being named in MVP conversations, but he’s also had some moments where the idea of winning the league’s highest honors is a little ridiculous.
All that was evident in the first half of Sunday. It was Purdy’s version so easy to question, to mock when he was mentioned before the elite. He completed only 47 percent of his passes in the first two quarters (including an interception that set up a Detroit touchdown) and missed several other throws. The 49ers’ potent offense, against a vulnerable defense, scored just seven points in the first half.
The entire Bay Area was asking to speak to the manager.
That’s when Purdy emerged. The young man with a healthy smile, responsible attractiveness and humility at your service.
“My faith never wavered,” 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. said of his quarterback. “I’ve been saying it all year. You have a guy like that who can control the game, who knows where to go and when to go with the ball. I’m happy he’s on my team. I’ll tell everyone that. I never worry. When Purdy needs to score points, that is when he is at his best.”
What propelled the 49ers was Purdy’s immeasurability. The gunslinger mentality. The major half is resolved. Mr. Irrelevant’s chip on his shoulder. The toughness of the little one.
Like that heart-stopping throw to Jauan Jennings on third-and-4 with the 49ers down 17. Purdy scrambled, stopped short of the line of scrimmage and threw a pass across his body toward the middle. It was more of an alley-oop, and it took Jennings all of his 6-foot-3 frame and 6-foot-4 wingspan to make the one-handed catch and keep the momentum alive. It was Patrick Mahomesian.
But above all, the heart. Purdy is not afraid of pressure. He can sometimes seem nervous, but not enough to turn him into a shell. His will to win took over Sunday.
The play of the game, his deep throw to Brandon Aiyuk, was him being the opposite of a game manager. With the 49ers down two touchdowns, and after the defense had just pulled off a massive turnover, Purdy wasn’t looking to play it safe.
I was trying to make a play. He felt they needed something big and went for it.
-NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
“At that point,” Purdy said, “I look at it like we needed a play. I’m not going to be stupid and just throw the ball. But BA is one to one. I’m going to take that chance. Especially in this type of game. We needed that type of game. So people can say what they want, but I was giving my boy a chance.”
The Lions had a single safety hovering in the middle of the field. When Samuel cut on a crossing route, the safety went with him. That left Aiyuk one-on-one with Detroit cornerback Kindle Vildor.
“I saw it live,” Samuel said. “I saw the guy cut the high snap that I was running and I just looked up and Brock let him go.”
Purdy is here, and not Jimmy Garoppolo, because the 49ers can’t win the Super Bowl without a quarterback capable and willing to hit the deep ball. For all his success, Garoppolo’s hesitancy to throw downfield, even if it was created by Shanahan’s hesitancy to call for longer throws, put a limit on the 49ers’ offense. They recruited Trey Lance looking to be more dynamic.
They ended up with Purdy, who can climb and push the ball downfield.
The 49ers lost the last Super Bowl they reached because they couldn’t score in the fourth quarter. While Patrick Mahomes was becoming a legend, the 49ers’ offense stifled under Garoppolo’s predictable slant passes and pocket confinement.
Purdy may not overtake Mahomes either. But he is not ruled out. It was said that he couldn’t come from behind and he did. It was said that he couldn’t lead the team and so he did. It was said that he wasn’t the reason the 49ers won and he was. In fact, he is surrounded by talent. And he could be outmatched. He could come up short. But Sunday was further proof of the player in him. He can handle it. He can handle it down.
Purdy is not afraid. Don’t run at him, throw him, or take away the defense’s advantage.
His pass to Aiyuk ended up too deep (or the pass interference could have prevented Aiyuk from getting to the ball) and Vildor had an interception opportunity. His job is to stay on top of the receiver, and he did it. But the pass bounced off his helmet and into Aiyuk’s arms.
Lucky? Absolutely. But fortune favors the bold.
“I watched the replay,” Kittle said, “and I thought, ‘Just how we wanted it to look.’ Out of the guy’s mask, straight to BA’ Dang. Brock is good at football, right?
If you are a game manager, it must be the premium version.
The 49ers win the NFC Championship Game and justify an entire era
(Top photo of Brock Purdy celebrating a touchdown in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game: Cooper Neill/Getty Images)