SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- To take the biggest step toward completing one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NFL history, the San Francisco 49ers did on Sunday what they've done so many times throughout the season: They rode the wave provided by an unlikely hero.
With Raheem Mostert, the journeyman running back/accomplished surfer, putting together one of the most dynamic rushing performances in playoff history, the Niners throttled the Green Bay Packers for the second time this season, this time by a score of 37-20, on their way to their first NFC Championship crown since the 2012 season.
In what was the eighth postseason meeting in the storied franchise histories of the Packers and 49ers, the Niners leaned on the same formula they used to dispatch the Minnesota Vikings last week, albeit with a different star in the lead role.
Whereas last week it was running back Tevin Coleman carrying the freight, this one belonged to Mostert, who ran over, around and through Packers defenders all day on his way to 220 yards on 29 carries to go with four touchdowns.
The rushing yards were the second most by a player in postseason history and the most in 49ers franchise history. Mostert's four touchdowns were the second most by an individual in a playoff game.
In a season in which multiple players deep on San Francisco's depth chart have performed well in big moments, Mostert offered the ultimate example on the biggest stage yet.
"He has earned everything that he's gotten," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He earned today and he's just such a good person and for him to help us as much as he has on offense and I mean, you guys saw the play he made last week on special teams. ... But I can't say enough good things about Raheem."
In the first half alone, Mostert rushed for 160 yards on 14 carries with three scores. Those 160 yards were the most in the opening half of a playoff game since the Chargers' Keith Lincoln had 176 in the 1963 AFL Championship game against the Boston Patriots, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
With the convincing win, the Niners became the third team in the Super Bowl era to go from four or fewer wins in one season to a Super Bowl berth the next, joining the 1999 St. Louis Rams and the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals. Those Rams went on to win Super Bowl XXXIV, while the Bengals, who played only 15 regular-season games that season because of a player strike, lost Super Bowl XXIII to, coincidentally, the 49ers. That game was also played in Miami.
It's the Niners' first NFC Championship since the 2012 season that ended with their Super Bowl XLVII appearance against the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers lost that game 34-31.
The biggest game of Mostert's career came as the culmination of a breakout season in which he went from reliable special-teams ace to leading rusher as Coleman and fellow running back Matt Breida dealt with injuries. Since ESPN began tracking tackling statistics in 2001, Mostert is the only player to lead his team in special-teams stops and rushing yards in a season.
All of that came after previous, short stints with Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, the New York Jets and Chicago that lasted less than a combined two years. In many of those places, Mostert didn't so much as make the active roster.
At one point, Mostert considered walking away from the game before a pep talk from his wife, Devon, convinced him to stick with it.
"I was a little discouraged in 2015 at the end of that year," Mostert said. "I was with the Browns. My wife, she's from Cleveland so we thought we had something in the bag with me making the roster and then coming in to training camp, preseason I had a little bit of an injury so I missed the last preseason game that year. I thought I was on the roster. I made the 53-man roster, was celebrating with my family and then the next day I got cut. So, going through that, it just made me stronger.
"I got immune to being cut. I just wanted to show the world what I can do. Honestly, it was just one of those things where I really had a talk with my wife and I was just like 'Hey, what do you think should happen?' after I got cut. She said, 'Hey, if you love your job, if you love this sport, you will do anything for it and if you love what you do, you will do anything for it.' That was my philosophy from there on out."
Now, Mostert is the leading rusher on the NFL's second-best rushing attack and heading to the Super Bowl. Even before the win Sunday, he had trouble grasping just how far he has come, though he has never forgotten where he has been.
"I actually still have the cut dates that I look at before every game," Mostert said. "When I got cut, been on several different teams and the journey's been crazy. Not everybody can deal with that type of stress and pain and agony that I went through. But, like I said, I kept the faith in myself and whoever gave me the opportunity. And this organization has done a great job with that."
Shanahan leaned on Mostert and the run game so heavily that the 49ers attempted just two passes in the second half. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo finished 6-of-8 for 77 yards on the day as the Niners rushed for 285 yards on 42 attempts as a team.
Garoppolo's eight pass attempts left the Niners as one of four teams with fewer than 10 attempts in a postseason game.
Shanahan carved out his own place in history, joining Bill Walsh and George Seifert as the only coaches in franchise history to go to the Super Bowl in their first postseason appearances. Also, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, Shanahan will join his dad, Mike, to form just the second father/son duo in NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL history to appear in at least one title game.
And in fitting fashion, it was Mostert, he of the seven NFL stops who never played running back until his junior year at Purdue, who led Shanahan's resilient Niners back to the promised land.
"He's as fast as anybody out there," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "He's as strong and big and has all the on-paper stuff, but his heart and his passion and his desire and his care for his teammates, you just can't be happier for a guy than him because of all the things he's done and put in. What was he on, like seven teams before this? That's unbelievable. That's like movie stuff to be the MVP of the NFC Championship Game to take your team to the Super Bowl, that's pretty cool."