On a night when eyes were fixated on a rushing machine at Arrowhead, it was one in San Francisco that snatched the spotlight.
Derrick Henry’s bullish form had dominated build-up to the Tennessee Titans’ AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs, with defensive end Frank Clark’s bold challenge adding fuel to a fascinating matchup.
It was no surprise, either. After all, Henry entered the contest having rushed for over 180 yards in each of his last three games, toppling the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens in the process. The attention was warranted.
The Chiefs went on to restrict Henry to 69 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries as Andy Reid’s men secured their place at the Super Bowl with a 35-24 victory.
Just hours later Raheem Mostert had inspired the 49ers to a Miami showdown with an NFL playoff record 220 rushing yards for four touchdowns in San Francisco’s 37-20 win over the Green Bay Packers.
Overlooked and underestimated for much of his career, Mostert not only delivered for his team but rewarded his own resilience.
The 27-year-old typified the NFL at its best, erupting on the big stage and transforming a journey hindered by constant setbacks into one of the season’s most poignant stories.
His journey so far
Mostert was an undrafted free agent out of Purdue in 2015, eventually signing with the Philadelphia Eagles before being cut ahead of the season and subsequently being named to the practice squad.
From there he was signed by the Miami Dolphins and released again in the space of the month, landing in Baltimore with the Ravens where he returned five kicks in seven games only to be cut in December and picked up by the Cleveland Browns.
He served as the Browns’ starting kick returner in the final three games of the 2015 season and stayed with the team throughout the offseason until he was released in September 2016.
After similarly short-lived stints with the New York Jets and Chicago Bears, Mostert found his way to the 49ers in November 2016, but didn’t make his debut until the final game of the season.
Seven teams, cut by six. Not exactly the makings of a playoff sensation – or so the six teams that passed him by thought. And that’s what makes Sunday all the more special.
The self-assurance that he can compete at the highest level, the satisfaction in proving those that doubted him wrong.
New beginnings in San Francisco
Having spent much of 2017 and the latter stages of 2018 on injured reserve, Mostert entered 2019 as third-string running back behind Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman.
In that time he evidently convinced Kyle Shanahan to keep him around as the former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator overhauled the 49ers’ roster upon being hired as head coach in 2017.
Such was his limited involvement early on this season that Mostert recorded seven straight games of single-digit carries, as well as rushing for at least 60 yards in just three of the first 10 games.
Then came the Week 13 thriller against the Ravens when Mostert exploded for 146 yards off 19 carries for one touchdown in the 20-17 defeat.
Injury to Brieda paved the way for his backup to take the reigns and by the end of the regular season Mostert had racked up seven rushing touchdowns in his last six games, including at least one visit to the endzone in each.
Mostert’s 2019 regular season statistics Attempts Rushing yards Rushing TDs Catches Receiving yards Receiving TDs 137 772 8 14 180 2
His underrated speed was finally being acknowledged, along with the agility and vision to spot avenues and bypass tackles. He was proving he was far more than a special teams asset.
Sunday lifted things to a new level and was further testament to Shanahan’s play-calling and preparation. Having implemented a pass-heavy approach in November’s win over the Packers, the 49ers turned to Mostert and the ground game, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempting just eight passes on the night.
Mostert had punched through for 160 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries by half-time.
Speaking after the game, tight end George Kittle said: “It’s so fun to see Raheem like that, he’s such a special player and he finally gets to show it.
“Whether it’s special teams or offense, the way he hits the hole he gets so vertical so fast and I think defenses underestimate his speed.
“You can see it, he’ll hit a hole and a guy will take what he thinks is a good angle and the next thing you know he doesn’t touch him.”
He is a beacon of what can be so special about playoff football. An unlikely hero stepping up to make a name for himself.