Now we know why it's been Super Bowl or bust for the 49ers

Kimberley A. Martin
Senior NFL writer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — They knew it long before we did.

As far back as training camp. 

As early as OTAs. 

There was something special here. 

Something different. 

Something that potentially could shock the world.  

“They don’t understand,” Richard Sherman explained to Yahoo Sports. “But we understand what we have.”

Long before anyone believed in their dominance, the San Francisco 49ers quietly set their sights on the Super Bowl. Back in the summer. Back when few even gave them a fighting chance in their own division. So on Sunday night, in the aftermath of their most commanding performance of the season against a longtime foe — and against one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks — there was no bombastic trash talk or raucous postgame celebrations. There simply was a quiet confidence filtering through the 49ers locker room, and the clear understanding that the end result — a 37-8 victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers — was no fluke, but rather the expected outcome on the path to their ultimate end goal.

“Before OTAs even happened, I had a feeling we were going to be good,” 49ers safety Jimmie Ward said, in a near-empty locker room. “I just knew we’d be great. I knew what we had on offense. I knew we’d be great on defense. And defense wins championships.”

If you were surprised that the 49ers (10-1) — led by Fred Warner (11 tackles, a sack and forced fumble), Arik Armstead (two sacks), Nick Bosa (a fumble recovery) and the rest of their relentless defensive front — were able to manhandle Rodgers and the Packers in prime time, you haven’t been paying attention.

Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by Nick Bosa (97), one of five sacks for the 49ers against the Packers. (Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But they made their strongest statement to date against a future Hall of Famer.

Rodgers completed 20 of 33 passes for only 104 yards, the fewest in any of his career starts with at least 30 passing attempts. He also was sacked five times and finished the game with a woeful 75.8 rating.

The 49ers’ defense was so dominant, so unrelenting, that Rodgers was forced to watch the remaining 4:58 from the safety of his own sideline.

“When we stop them on first and second down, and we get to rush the quarterback on third down, you see what the result is,” said Warner, who jumpstarted the attack when he strip-sacked Rodgers on Green Bay’s opening drive. One play after Bosa recovered the fumble, teammate Tevin Coleman ran the ball in for a 2-yard score giving San Francisco a lead it would not relinquish.

The Packers (8-3) were lifeless on offense, save for Rodgers’ 2-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion throw (both to Davante Adams) in the third quarter. Meanwhile, their defense was so disjointed that it surrendered a 61-yard touchdown to 49ers tight end George Kittle — who scampered untouched into the end zone on one good leg — and a 42-yarder to rookie receiver Deebo Samuel. 

Depsite the lead, the 49ers’ defense wouldn’t let up. Not with the looming threat of Rodgers’ wizardry.

“You play him hard until he stops playing,” Sherman said. “Any time you playing a Hall of Famer like that, you never feel like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s rattled.’ Because that’s what makes them Hall of Famers. At any moment, they can wake up and they can go off.”

But Rodgers never rebounded. Instead, it was Jimmy Garoppolo who put on the show with the world watching.

If there is a weakness to be found with these physical 49ers, it’s their inconsistent and unproven quarterback. But underneath the bright lights and the weight of prime-time expectations, Garoppolo finished with his highest rating of his career — 145.8 — on 14-of-20 passing for 253 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

After the game, Sherman expressed his frustration with those who continue to criticize Garoppolo for being the so-called weak link on the team. “It’s like you’re nitpicking at the point,” Sherman told Yahoo Sports. “Aaron has earned the right. He’s a Hall of Famer, he’s a gold jacket-wearer, he’s a walking legend. Jimmy hasn’t technically earned the right. He hasn’t played enough games, so you can respect that. But the thing I don’t appreciate is that way people overly criticize him. They’ll say, ‘Oh, my God, they ran for 250, they must have a bad quarterback.’ But it’s like, maybe the run game was just dominant and you’re running for 250, so why throw it? If he throws a good game, then it’s like, ‘Oh, it was Arizona.’ The goalpost is constantly moving. I can appreciate being good enough that they have to make excuses for why you’re good.”

Sherman would go on to defend his teammate at the podium, telling reporters: “Jimmy Garoppolo is our leader and we will follow him into the darkest of dark. We’ll follow him into a dark alley, and I guarantee you, you won’t touch him.”

With his father, Mike, watching from a luxury suite at Levi’s Stadium, Kyle Shanahan outcoached his friend and former pupil, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. And, as a result, the 49ers have started the season 10-1 for the first time since 1997. But some believe the real test for this team is just beginning.

The so-called “gauntlet” that began with Sunday night’s showdown against the Packers, ends with road games at Baltimore and New Orleans. But the 49ers stressed the importance of never underestimating their opponents. “Would most people say Arizona is tougher than Green Bay?” Sherman asked. “No. But they played us much tougher than this team played us. Sometimes it’s just matchups. Sometimes it’s just, they had a good day. Sometimes you just know your opponent so well because it’s a division game. So it really doesn’t change anything for us.”

That said, San Francisco’s defense has the unenviable challenge of containing Lamar Jackson, the league’s most electrifying quarterback and potential MVP. But even on the heels of their most impressive performance to date, the 49ers have fully embraced the underdog role.

“Hopefully they just keep sleeping on us,” Ward told Yahoo Sports. “Hopefully they think we’re going to lose to Baltimore and the Saints. That’s cool. All the critics and stuff, that makes the game more exciting.”

It’s OK if the rest of the world doesn’t see what they see.

The 49ers believe they know better.

In the offseason, they saw the makings of a great team. And, thus far, nothing has shaken their resolve.

“It sounded crazy then, but it doesn’t sound as crazy now,” Sherman said. “In training camp, guys were saying Super Bowl or bust because we knew the talent that we had. … But it’s not going to sound as wild now.” 

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