That was close: 49ers need clutch 4th-quarter drive to beat Packers and avoid upset

The San Francisco 49ers had one shot left at saving their season. All of the blowout wins in the regular season and the wide-open path they had in the NFC to the Super Bowl had been dissolved down to one drive, needing a touchdown to avoid a stunning upset at home to the Green Bay Packers.

Maybe we'll look back on the final few minutes of Saturday night's game as the one close call that San Francisco needed on its way to a Super Bowl title. Or maybe it was a sign that San Francisco is much more beatable than anyone figured.

Christian McCaffrey scored with 1:07 left, capping a clutch drive led by quarterback Brock Purdy, and linebacker Dre Greenlaw picked off one of Jordan Love's rare mistakes on an ill-advised pass over the middle to hold on for a 24-21 win. The 49ers will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Detroit Lions in the NFC championship game next Sunday.

The 49ers were expected to win the NFC without much resistance, especially when the Dallas Cowboys were eliminated. The Packers, behind another promising performance by Love, didn't make anything easy for the 49ers. The 49ers are moving on, but with a lot more stress than they probably expected.

49ers' slow start

From the first few minutes of the game, it was clear the 49ers would be challenged.

The Packers absolutely controlled the first quarter. They had a 111-22 edge in yardage. The Packers held a 11:47-3:13 advantage in time of possession. But one drive ended in a field goal and not a touchdown. The second long drive came to an end when the Packers went for it on fourth-and-1 and a tush-push quarterback sneak was stopped cold. The Packers had just a 3-0 lead to show for a quarter of superior play.

The 49ers scored a touchdown right after that fourth-down stop. Brock Purdy hit George Kittle for a 32-yard score.

But the Packers kept battling. They got a field goal to cut the 49ers' lead to 7-6. The 49ers had a strange clock management sequence in the final minutes of the half, settled for a 48-yard field goal attempt and it was blocked.

The Packers had to feel pretty good. They were big underdogs against the top-seeded 49ers. They had outplayed them for much of the first half. The rain and Deebo Samuel's shoulder injury, which knocked him out of the game in the first half, didn't hurt their chances. Purdy seemed to be struggling with the rain. He started the game with a glove on his right hand and then got rid of it. Fox's broadcast showed Purdy wiping off his hand as he was dropping back on one play. He missed several passes he normally doesn't miss.

The 49ers looked like the obvious class of the NFC for most of the season. They were watching their season quickly fading away on Saturday night against a hot Packers team.

49ers take a late lead

The Packers got a lot of momentum on two plays. On third-and-15, Love threw a prayer deep downfield and the 49ers got a defensive pass interference penalty. Then the 49ers left Bo Melton wide open for a 19-yard score when two defensive backs bit on a fake receiver screen at the line and a third slipped in the secondary. Green Bay led 13-7.

The 49ers answered back. Kittle had a long catch. McCaffrey broke some tackles and scored on a 39-yard run. Then the Packers avoided a disaster when Keisean Nixon fumbled at the end of a long kickoff return but linebacker Eric Wilson recovered it on a phenomenal hustle play. The Packers scored a touchdown after that and got the 2-point conversion to take a 21-14 lead.

When the Packers led 21-17 and a long Aaron Jones run got the Packers into 49ers territory, San Francisco was in a lot of trouble. But Packers kicker Anders Carlson missed a field goal with 6:18 left and San Francisco still had life. Purdy hit many big passes and had a huge run that set up a set up a third-and-1. McCaffrey scored a 6-yard touchdown on the next play.

The 49ers still had to get one big play on defense, and Love gave it to them on an interception, which he shouldn't have tried over the middle on first down as he rolled to his right. The 49ers survived. They'll be back home to host the NFC title game next week. But they appear to be a lot more vulnerable after barely beating the Packers.