It was altogether fitting that the decisive play, the key play, the game-sealing play was also a play that caused angst and worry and triggered the head coach to come up with a rebuke both playful and almost plaintive at the same time.
The high of seeing linebacker Dre Greenlaw making a diving interception, securing the wet football on a rainy evening to lock up Saturday night’s tense 24-21 NFC divisional playoff victory, was immediately and alarmingly followed by the impending horror that Greenlaw might actually get separated from the ball — the only way to not secure the victory.
And so, as there were gasps of joy and relief at Levi’s Stadium, there was also a gasp and plea to “Get down!’’ by 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
With 1:07 remaining, Christian McCaffrey scored on a 6-yard touchdown run to put the 49ers ahead by three points.
The Packers had enough time to get in position to possibly send the game into overtime.
But Jordan Love committed the quarterback sin of throwing late and across his body and his wobbling pass intended for Christian Watson was picked off by Greenlaw with 46 seconds to go.
Game over — unless Greenlaw did something crazy.
He nearly did.
“I can’t believe he didn’t get down right away,’’ Shanahan said.
The bad angel on one of Greenlaw’s shoulders mugged the good angel on the other shoulder.
Greenlaw scampered to his feet and started running, zig-zagging as if he were hell-bent and desperate to produce points for his team.
He heard the shouts from the sideline to get down and protect the ball.
But he also heard the words that teammate and fellow linebacker Fred Warner said to him leading into the game — that he was supposed to get a pick-six for the Niners.
“So it was kind of his fault,’’ Greenlaw said. “He was like, ‘Man, you are getting a pick-six.’ So I try to get one every time I get the ball. But yeah, I know I need to go down.”
For 12 harrowing seconds, Greenlaw was on his feet and tempting fate.
At around the Green Bay 40-yard line, Packers wide receiver Jayden Reed nearly stripped the ball from Greenlaw.
Ultimately, he went down and that was that.
Shanahan admitted he had “mixed emotions’’ about what should have been a play that prompted nothing but celebratory emotions.
“We’ll put him on offense if he really wants to run with the ball that bad,’’ Shanahan deadpanned. “He could definitely get down a lot sooner.’’
Good teams can overcome occasional lapses in judgment and periodic lapses in performance, and the 49ers were able to rise above their own failings to avoid an upset and elimination at the hands of the clearly inspired and underdog Packers.
Shanahan was philosophical about Greenlaw’s momentary brain cramp, likening it to what he watched for the better part of three hours.
“It was kinda like the whole day,’’ he said. “All the guys I would get really upset with are also the guys I have a lot of love for at the end too, because they were the ones that pulled it off to get us the ‘W.’ ’’
In the end, the ‘W’ is all that mattered for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
The 49ers will play host to the Lions, who beat the Buccaneers 31-23 on Sunday, in the NFC Championship game next Sunday.
This will be the fourth time in the past five years the 49ers are in the NFC title game and their third consecutive appearance.
They lost 20-17 to the Rams following the 2021 season and lost 31-7 to the Eagles after last season, in a game in which Brock Purdy injured his right elbow, his replacement, Josh Johnson, suffered a concussion and Purdy had to re-enter the game even though he could not throw the ball.
Both of those NFC title game losses were on the road.
This next one is at home.
“We’ve been thinking about it,’’ Purdy said. “It’s been sort of in the back of our minds, like last year we had a team to do it and we feel like we didn’t have a real opportunity at it after the quarterbacks got hurt in that game. So, I think we’re really excited for it.’’