SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It wasn’t too long ago that Raheem Mostert was ready to give up.
He came into the league as an undrafted free agent from Purdue in 2016 and bounced around and around and around. He was cut from six practice squads, including a six-day stint with the Jets, during a disappointing and disorienting introduction to pro football.
“There were too many cuts, too many problems,” he said of that year. “I didn’t expect my career to start out like that.”
But he had a conversation with his wife when it came to a close. “She told me, ‘If you truly love your thing, go do what you need to do,’ ” Mostert recalled. “That was what I needed right there.”
On Sunday night, Mostert was what the 49ers needed. Listed as the third-string running back on the roster, he ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries in a 37-20 win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers will face the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2 in Miami.
The 49ers dominated the Packers with a style that would have seemed foreign to their dynastic teams of the 1980s. Back then, the franchise was identified by its West Coast offense and a quarterback spreading the ball around the field. It was a philosophy that won them five Lombardi Trophies.
No, this version of the team looked more like the offenses that the Broncos used to win their Super Bowls shortly after that last era of 49ers dominance, when they would open gaping holes at the line of scrimmage and have little-known, under-appreciated running backs scoot through them to turn in monster performances. That was the system that turned Terrell Davis from a sixth-round pick into a Hall of Famer.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan undoubtedly remembered that scheme. It was the one his father, Mike, used to win his Super Bowl rings. And now it’s the one that has brought Kyle within a victory of his own title.
“It was fun to watch,” Mike Shanahan said, grinning with approval as he walked to celebrate with his son and his son’s team.
“You’ve seen a whole bunch of guys before me who have been running this system, even going way back when Mike Shanahan in Denver had TD and everything,” Mostert said. “You can’t do anything but be great.”
Mostert even has the same running backs coach as Davis: Robert Turner.
“It’s great because he’s been through all of it,” Mostert said of Turner. “Now he’s just giving us knowledge from when he was coaching TD.”
As for the Packers, their misery in the Bay Area this season was compounded by the loss. Coupled with their Week 12 flop against the 49ers, they were outscored by a combined 74-28 in their two games here.
Aaron Rodgers, who grew up in Northern California rooting for the 49ers, could not get the Packers moving in the first half.
The one first-half drive in which Green Bay was able to gain some push into 49ers territory ended when Rodgers came away from under center without the football, leaving it loose on the ground. The 49ers’ DeForest Buckner recovered it at the 25 with 5:39 left in the half.
The Packers’ next possession ended with Rodgers throwing an interception.
The 49ers turned those takeaways into points to turn a not-quite-insurmountable 17-0 lead at the two-minute warning into a book-the-flight-to-Miami 27-0 advantage at halftime.
At that point, Jimmy Garoppolo had thrown only six passes for 48 yards. He finished having to throw only eight times, Joe Montana and Steve Young be darned!
The Packers were able to keep America from changing the channel in the second half. They opened the second half with Rodgers throwing a 9-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Jones to make it 27-7. The 49ers responded with a 79-yard touchdown drive that ended with Mostert scoring his fourth touchdown of the game on a 22-yard run to make it 34-7 with 4:49 left in the third. Garoppolo did not throw a pass on the seven-play possession.
On the first two plays of the fourth quarter, Rodgers threw a 42-yard pass to Jimmy Graham to move the Packers to the 1 and Jones scored to make it 34-13.
Then, a few plays after a 65-yard pass to Davante Adams to get to the 22, Rodgers hit Jace Sternberger for an 8-yard TD to make it 34-20 with 8:13 left.
The 49ers opened their rebuttal to that sliver of a chance at a comeback with their first pass of the second half, a 19-yarder from Garoppolo to George Kittle, then went right back to Mostert to control the ball for the next 4 1⁄2 minutes. Robbie Gould’s 42-yard field goal made it a three-possession game with 3:31 left.
Much like Mostert, these 49ers have ascended quickly from the afterthought scrapheap. They won 10 games combined in the two seasons before 2019 and only four in 2018.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the team’s rise from the depths of the standings to its pinnacle more than this: A year ago, the 49ers’ staff was coaching the Senior Bowl. This year it’s the Super Bowl.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was in the postgame locker room with a T-shirt that hammered home that long journey. It read, simply: “Mobile to Miami.”