SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In the week before Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy didn’t allow himself to go back to what happened the last time he played on that stage.
When asked what it meant to him to get another shot at the NFC title after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow early in a devastating loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last year, Purdy acknowledged that he “got hurt and it sucked.” That was about it.
Instead of a stroll down memory lane, Purdy wanted to speed into the future. With his team down 17 points to the Lions entering the third quarter Sunday night, Purdy’s refusal to look back manifested into the spark for San Francisco’s stirring comeback.
Sure, Purdy turned his first-half passing struggles around. but it was his electric scrambles (paired with a little bit of luck) that truly changed the 49ers’ fortunes. As coach Kyle Shanahan said, Purdy’s legs — be it from yards gained rushing or evading pressure to get the ball to his pass-catchers — was “the difference between winning and losing.”
Taking away a pair of kneel-downs, Purdy rushed three times for 52 yards, including a pair of 21-yard scrambles to set up the touchdowns that gave San Francisco the lead for good in the 34-31 victory which sent the 49ers to their eighth Super Bowl.
“You ever see one of those little water dragons that runs on the water?” tight end George Kittle said. “That’s what I envisioned every time he’s running [the] football. … He just is a tough kid. A lot of grit to him and he understands that when he’s playing at a high level, when he needs to play at a high level, everyone around him is better.”
All season, Purdy’s teammates and coaches have insisted that he has been a quarterback who makes everyone around him better. His many critics insist that Purdy has been a product of the talent around him and the scheme that he plays in. But as the 49ers head into a Super Bowl LVIII rematch against the Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (6:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, Feb. 11, CBS), the experience of the past two weeks has only buoyed their belief in the second-year quarterback.
As the Niners racked up 12 regular-season wins and claimed the top seed in the NFC, they often ran away from opponents early in games. It left many wondering if they — and especially Purdy — were capable of coming from behind when things weren’t going well.
Lost in that conversation was Purdy being one of the primary reasons the Niners rarely trailed. When Purdy played well for the first three quarters, he often wasn’t needed to play in the fourth, let alone be tasked with delivering late-game heroics.
But these playoffs have changed the script. In each of the past two weeks, the Niners have fallen behind and teetered on the brink of their season falling apart. Purdy has struggled to get on track early, whether because of weather or simply missing throws he normally executes.
Yet, when the Niners have needed him most, Purdy has figured it out. It’s a trait they hope will serve them well and make the difference between winning and losing come Super Bowl Sunday.
“I don’t have enough good things to say about Brock,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “All he’s done since he’s been here is play at an elite level. Everything starts with him. We’re lucky he’s our quarterback. He takes a lot of heat for absolutely no reason. All he has done has been a great leader and been a great player. I’m so proud of him and pumped up that I get another one with him this year.”
Purdy’s performance against the Lions was integral in ensuring McCaffrey and the Niners got that extra opportunity. While Purdy finished 20-of-31 for 267 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception to go with his five carries for 48 yards, his first- and second-half splits offered a spot-on reflection of how the game went for the Niners.
In the opening two quarters, Purdy was 7-of-15 for 93 yards with an interception. In the final 30 minutes, he was 13-of-16 for 174 yards with a touchdown pass and 49 rushing yards. That running ability generated a career-high plus-10.6 expected points added on scrambles, which led to six first downs. In addition to the scrambles for rushing yards, he was 3-of-4 for 41 yards and three first downs on scrambles that became passes.
Purdy’s 315 combined yards passing and rushing were the most by a 49ers quarterback in a conference title game victory.
“You’ve got to find a way,” Purdy said. “I feel like throughout my life I’ve scrambled and stuff here and there. Since I’ve been here, I feel like I haven’t done it a whole lot … I was just trying to keep the chains moving, keep the ball moving forward, then obviously give our team some momentum and some juice. I had to do it, so I did it.”
It’s that approach from Purdy that leads his teammates to come to his defense, even though Purdy doesn’t seem to pay attention to what is said about him. McCaffrey, Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, defensive end Chase Young, defensive tackle Arik Armstead and safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. each offered high praise for Purdy and scoffed at the outside noise.
Even the team’s social media account took the opportunity to poke fun at the “game manager” label that is often thrown Purdy’s way.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 29, 2024
Now, Purdy gets the chance to pull the ultimate trump card. He’s long past the elbow injury of last year and on to his first Super Bowl appearance. He’s one of four quarterbacks (joining Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez) to win four playoff games in his first two seasons.
But to get No. 5, Purdy and the Niners will have to go through Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. It’s a matchup Purdy called “special for all of us” given that the Chiefs denied the Niners a Lombardi Trophy in their Super Bowl LIV meeting four years ago.
Much will be made of whether Purdy, the former Mr. Irrelevant, can outduel Mahomes, the standard bearer at the position who has already thrust himself into “greatest of all time” conversations.
But that’s not how the Niners view it. They don’t want Purdy to be anyone but the guy who has repeatedly answered every question about him in the affirmative. They want him to be the guy who will do whatever it takes to win, just as he has in the past two weeks.
They want him to be himself.
“He’s an incredible quarterback,” Juszczyk said. “He’s a Super Bowl quarterback and I intend on him leading us to a win in two weeks.”