SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Every year about this time, as the regular season ends and the postseason begins, we talk about teams that no one wants to play.
On Saturday, the first day of Super Wild Card Weekend, that adage proved true for both the San Francisco 49ers, whose dominant second half produced a 41-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who staged the third-largest comeback in postseason history to beat the Los Angeles Chargers, 31-30.
Jacksonville trailed 27-0 in the second quarter, largely due to quarterback Trevor Lawrence throwing four interceptions. But if history has taught us anything about the Chargers, it's to expect the worst. Their history of shocking defeats is long and well-documented.
Still, it's doubtful any is more stupefying than this one. Alas, let's take a look at who's up and who's down from the postseason's opening day in the chase for the Lombardi Trophy.
49ers quarterback Brock Purdy: He began the season as a relative unknown, ranking third on the 49ers' depth chart after being selected with the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. But injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo forced him into the starting lineup sooner than anyone anticipated; and though he played exceptionally well in five starts to end the regular season, there remained the question of how he would handle the pressures of the playoffs.
Does 332 yards and three touchdowns passing, with another score on the ground, answer that question? Oh, and a season-high 505 yards of total offense by San Francisco.
Purdy looked out of sync early in the game, missing several open receivers for potential big plays. But he was nearly perfect in the second half, completing 9 of 11 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. He should have had a third, but Brandon Aiyuk dropped a dart in the back corner of the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
After a 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Elijah Mitchell early in the fourth quarter, Purdy faced the San Francisco sideline and released a long, loud yell before beating his chest.
"You can't play in this league if you're going to be a guy who's not confident in himself and is timid and hesitant and all that stuff," said right tackle Mike McGlinchey. "He's letting it rip. I think that's why he's having success and this team is having success, because we're all so confident in what we do and we're playing free and without hesitation."
49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. San Francisco's second-year defensive coordinator is one of the league's hotter head-coaching candidates -- he's expected to begin interviews with Houston, Denver and Arizona as early as this coming week, according to a source -- and the performance of his unit on Saturday should only help his candidacy.
After some uncharacteristic lapses in the first half, his players were relentless over the final two quarters, forcing two turnovers that changed the complexion of the game. None was bigger than Charles Omenihu's strip sack of Geno Smith late in the third quarter inside the San Francisco 30. Nick Bosa's recovery set the stage for a seven-play, 70-yard touchdown march that put the 49ers ahead 31-17.
"Huge," head coach Kyle Shanahan said of the takeaway.
San Francisco forced a punt on its next defensive series, which was followed two plays later by a 74-yard, catch-and-run touchdown by Deebo Samuel; and an interception on the following series was converted into a field goal and 41-17 lead.
Ryans' defenders play with passion and intelligence. In many ways they are a reflection of the man himself. One of the chief attributes of a good head coach is whether he can effectively lead, and the reverence expressed by 49ers defenders leaves no doubts about his ability to do that.
Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson. He inherited a team that had won only four games the previous two seasons and was in need of a major cultural overhaul, and he proved the right man for the job by leading the Jaguars to a division title and playoff victory. He's a reminder that as much as we talk about X's and O's, football is a people business. You don't rally from a 27-0 deficit if you don't believe, and the Jaguars clearly believe in their coach.
Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence. It says something about his athletic character that he could have as bad an opening half as possible, throwing four interceptions and putting his team in a 27-0 hole, yet rally right before halftime and in the final two quarters with four touchdown passes and enough key completions to put the Jaguars in position for the winning field goal. Amazing. Just amazing.
Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith. His team may have lost the game, but Smith deserves recognition for showing that he is more than a backup. In the absence of the departed Russell Wilson, who was traded to Denver last offseason, Smith put together a Pro Bowl season and now will cash in as a free agent, either by hitting the open market or by working under the franchise tag or a longer contract with Seattle.
On Saturday, he finished 25-of-35 for 253 yards and two touchdowns. And though his interception and lost fumble were costly, they do not take away from the year that he has had.
Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. The Chargers jumped out to a 27-point lead thanks, in part, to a hat trick of first-half interceptions by Samuel, who became the first player with as many picks in a single postseason game since Ty Law in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. At one point Saturday night, the second-year ballhawk had caught more passes from Lawrence than any Jaguar. He's taking after his father, Asante Samuel, who had 51 career INTs in his 11 NFL seasons.
49ers running back Christian McCaffrey. The midseason trade that brought him from Carolina might be one of the more influential moves in franchise history, perhaps one day ranking up there with the deal for edge rusher Fred Dean in 1981. That trade helped put the 49ers over the top as they won their first of five Super Bowls at the end of that season. McCaffrey's arrival has been no less impactful.
He has now rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his last six games -- he finished with 119 on Saturday and added 17 more on two receptions -- and remains one of the game's more dangerous dual-threats, along with Samuel, who had a team-high 133 yards receiving as well as 32 yards on three carries.
There is an air of anticipation when McCaffrey touches the ball, as if something special could be waiting. On Saturday, it was a 68-yard sprint down the left sideline, in front of a San Francisco bench that was waving him on.
Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf. The Seahawks star playmaker finished with 10 catches for 136 yards, 50 of which came on a second-quarter touchdown. He eagerly accepted the challenge of being shadowed by the 49ers' top cornerback, Charvarius Ward, and consistently came up with critical catches, either to convert on third down or reach the end zone.
Jaguars running back Travis Etienne. A controversial first-round pick who missed all of last season due to injury, the second-year running back likely won over all of Jacksonville with his key fourth-down conversion late in fourth quarter Saturday night, setting up the decisive field goal. He finished with 109 yards on 20 carries, and has been a big part of the Jaguars' turnaround this season.
The Chargers. I could go into all the negatives, but at this point it seems overkill. It was a game they had won, but how many times have we said that over the years only to have the outcome go the other way?
The NFC. It's hard for me to see anyone in the conference beating the 49ers, who have won 11 in a row and are playing the type of complementary football normally associated with championship clubs. We often hear coaches talk about taking away the opponent's best player. Good luck figuring out who that is with San Francisco. McCaffrey? Samuel? George Kittle? Aiyuk?
Each is a big-time threat in his own way. And not to be overlooked is Purdy, who became the first rookie to account for four touchdowns in a playoff game. According to NFL Research, he's the second rookie to win a playoff game by throwing for at least 200 yards and two touchdowns. The other is Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh in 1937.
The 49ers can score with anyone, and they can defend with anyone. Besides that, they are as healthy as they have been all season, which is something their counterparts cannot say.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley. It's not a reach to say the Chargers job looks too big for him, from his ill-advised fourth-down attempts last season in his first year, to his decision to play his regulars in a meaningless season-ending game last week -- a decision that cost them top wideout Mike Williams, who sustained a back injury. Staley looked a lot like his team in the final quarter: tight. That's never a good sign for a head coach, and it remains to be seen if it will cost him his job.
Chargers pass rusher Joey Bosa. The veteran defensive end repeatedly lost his composure, and the last of two unsportsmanlike penalties allowed the Jaguars to move the ball to the 1-yard line, where they converted the two-point conversion that allowed them to eventually win the game on a field goal. He has to be better than that, no matter his frustration level.
Seahawks offensive line. The unit has every reason to be bullish about its future, particularly considering this was the first time since 1982 that a team started rookies at both tackle spots in a playoff game. But after some early success, the group was overwhelmed by San Francisco's front seven. There is no shame in that; many teams have struggled to slow the Niners.
49ers red-zone offense. It's hard to be critical of a unit that put up 41 points, but San Francisco was just 3-of-6 in red-zone efficiency. It didn't hurt the 49ers were against a lesser opponent like Seattle, but it could be an issue as the competition gets tougher.
Meteorologists. They kept reporting there was going to be a torrential downpour in Santa Clara, but it never materialized -- at least not during the game. In fact, there were breaks of sunshine, to the point that Pete Carroll, Seattle's coach, could be spotted squinting from the bright rays.