GREEN BAY, Wis. — Phil Dawson will turn 39 years old later this month. He's at the tail end of his 15th season. And after spending 14 years in Cleveland with the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers kicker isn't exactly accustomed to the postseason stage.
So on Sunday, when his big moment arrived, he made sure to appreciate the opportunity more than fear the pressure.
Three seconds remained. A 33-yard field-goal attempt awaited to break a 20-20 tie and beat the Green Bay Packers in the opening round of the playoffs.
Said Dawson: "I've waited a long time to win a playoff game."
He did just that Sunday, as time expired, connecting on his game-winning kick as the 49ers downed the Packers, 23-20.
In an Arctic chill that included windchills of 15 degrees below zero. With nary a blade of grass left in the middle of Lambeau Field. And with a winter wind gusting from sideline to sideline.
Dawson prepares himself for such kicks and felt his range was probably 46 or 47 yards on that end of the field. But …
"You can't prepare all the way," he said. "Not for zero degrees and a left-to-right wind."
Now Dawson's a playoff hero, the Packers' season is over and the 49ers are off to Carolina this weekend for a rematch with the Panthers.
"I owe that kick to the whole offense," Dawson said.
He's right. After the Packers tied the game with 5:06 left on a 24-yard field goal by Mason Crosby, the 49ers made sure not to let Aaron Rodgers back on the stage to continue his magic act.
The game's final drive lasted 15 plays, chewed up 65 yards and used every tick the 49ers had when they got the ball back.
Included were three clutch third-down conversions, two from quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The first — a 17-yard completion to Michael Crabtree over the middle — moved the chains on third and 10 from the 49ers' 31-yard line with four minutes left.
Five snaps later, on third and nine from the Packers' 38, Kaepernick recognized a blitz, couldn't find Crabtree open and used his agility and long strides to turn a near-sack into an 11-yard gain.
"It didn't look good to me," Kaepernick said. "So I tried to make something happen."
Kaepernick made plays throughout the game, finishing with 227 passing yards and a touchdown, plus 98 yards on the ground.
So much for the Packers' hopes of riding Rodgers' return deep into January.
That appeared possible early in the fourth quarter when, for the second consecutive week, the elusive quarterback delivered another dash of fourth-down brilliance.
On fourth and two from the San Francisco 30, Rodgers somehow wriggled and bunny-hopped out of the grasp of defensive tackle Ray McDonald, fleeing the pocket and hitting Randall Cobb over the top of the defense for 26 yards. That set up John Kuhn's one-yard touchdown run for a 17-13 Packers lead.
But after Kaepernick answered with a 28-yard touchdown toss to Vernon Davis, Rodgers (17 for 26, 177 yards, one touchdown) and the Packers stalled inside the San Francisco 10 on their possession, settling for a field goal.
A sturdy 49ers defense, which delivered four sacks, forced four three-and-outs and held the Packers to 4.0 yards per rush, proved its toughness.
A hungry 49ers team, thus, booked its next playoff trip, confirming Coach Jim Harbaugh's confidence that they could handle the frigid Wisconsin weather and beat a dangerous Packers squad.
"I couldn't wait for them to prove it," Harbaugh said.