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Stanford in the NFL: Playoff edition

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And then there were four. 

Four teams—the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers—but also four former Cardinal players remain standing after the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

These four players will face off in the NFC Championship game next Sunday at San Francisco. While just two of the four, cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker Blake Martinez, are expected to see major playing time, each has made a tremendous impact for their respective defenses.

A 49ers team captain, Sherman’s 2019 season has largely been a triumphant return to glory for the All-Pro cornerback. After an inconsistent 2018 season due to a torn Achilles the year prior, Sherman signed a three-year, $39 million contract with the 49ers—a seemingly risky investment in a player coming off a career-altering injury.

However, Sherman lived up to his contract in the regular season this year for San Francisco. He finished with 48 solo tackles and three interceptions and was nominated for the Pro Bowl. Only one touchdown was scored on him all regular season. The 49ers defense as a whole was one of three allowing under 300 yards per game (281.8).

He is so widely feared that in the playoffs, opposing quarterbacks have been avoiding his side of the field altogether. Part of the Minnesota Vikings game plan was simply to not throw it in his direction. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins played a clean first half of football and kept his team in the game without targeting a player defended by Sherman in all 30 minutes. The 49ers led by just four at the half.

On the Vikings’ first drive of the third quarter in a 17-10 game, though, Cousins threw the ball Sherman’s way on an attempted quick pass to wide receiver Adam Thielen. The result spoke for itself. Sherman picked it off and returned the ball 13 yards downfield and San Francisco didn’t look back, scoring 10 unanswered points the rest of the way en route to a 27-10 victory.

While he won’t be on the playing field next week, John Lynch ‘93, current 49ers general manager and former Stanford football and baseball standout, is the architect of the current San Francisco roster. After being named general manager in 2017, Lynch has made numerous trades and signings to help remodel the team into a Super Bowl contender. The 49ers went 13-3 this year, just three years removed from a 2-14 finish. Tight end Levine Toilolo and defensive end Solomon Thomas, the other two former Cardinal players, will contribute to the depth of the 49ers roster.

The other NFC divisional game this past weekend featured Martinez on full display for his Packers. His 10 total and nine solo tackles led both teams; he consistently put himself in positions to stop the Seahawks’ advances. Green Bay’s defense held quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks scoreless in the first half.

This effort was a continuation of the 2019 regular season. Martinez finished third in the NFL with 97 total tackles while starting all 16 games for Green Bay. He also had one forced fumble, an interception and three sacks. His Packers finished with a 13-3 record identical to that of the 49ers.

These two teams met once before in the regular season. The 49ers destroyed the Packers in Week 12, 37-8. Both Martinez and Sherman had relatively quiet games in that contest, but next week will provide ample opportunity to make their presences felt.

Thirteen total former Stanford players made the NFL playoffs. Outside of the four still alive in the quest for Super Bowl 54, the Cardinal players in the postseason included punter Jake Bailey of the New England Patriots; outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett, safety Justin Reid and linebacker Peter Kalambayi of the Houston Texans; New Orleans Saints’ guard Andrus Peat; Buffalo Bills’ defensive end Trent Murphy; and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Zach Ertz and Nate Herbig of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Packers and 49ers will square off on January 19 at 3:40 p.m. PST in San Francisco.

Contact Jeremy Rubin at jjmrubin ‘at’ stanford.edu.