SANTA CLARA -- Sometimes all it takes is a split-second, a freaky instant, to deny a dream. Such a moment flashed before the 49ers on Saturday, and the only thing that allowed them to avert disaster was Richard Sherman’s athleticism and balance.
The cornerback was a few moments removed from standing in front of his cubicle, basking in the glory he has earned over the course of a brilliant nine-year NFL career. Basking, in this instance, might be an understatement.
“People think I’m a zone [cornerback],” he said with customary conviction. “[It’s] man! Playoffs! Pick! Gotta have those. You know what I mean?
“But you know what [media] is going to do? They’re going to do what they always do to me. They’re going to make an excuse for why I’m great. They’re going to have an excuse. ‘Oh, it was Kirk Cousins!’ It’s always an excuse. But when somebody does it, it’s like, ‘He’s the best corner.’
“Look, Jalen [Ramsey] was [considered] the greatest corner. But I’m a system corner. We play in the same system! But I’m a system corner. You start to listen and it’s like, ‘Bro, they run the same scheme.’ Like, what are we talking about?”
I then interrupted Sherman -- whose third-quarter interception was the most impactful play of the game -- to ask why he believes his excellence, which is inarguable, is somehow neglected.
“Because haters,” he replied. “People want to hate me. Because people want to treat me like a villain. They want me to fail. So, they don’t ever want to let me get what I’m supposed to get. It’s frustrating, but I’m about to talk about it in this press conference.”
His impassioned sermon over, Sherman began making his way out of the locker room and toward the auditorium to take questions about San Francisco’s 27-10 victory over Minnesota in the NFC Divisional Playoff.
A few steps onto the concrete hallway beneath Levi’s Stadium, Sherman slipped on a small wet spot, witnesses gasping in unison. This is where his athleticism and balance were as crucial as they are on the field.
He briefly skidded, managed a partial pirouette, and regained full equilibrium.
“Sherm” had survived his most perilous moment of the day. That puddle struck more fear than any of the receivers the Vikings sent his way -- mostly because Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins rarely considered that option. His questionable decision to test Sherman with a pass intended for Adam Thielen was picked off, giving the 49ers possession at the Minnesota 34-yard line.
Less than five minutes later, San Francisco was in the end zone, taking a 24-10 lead that signified full command.
That’s what Sherman does. He makes big plays in big moments. He talks big before and after those games. He gives this ferocious defense the lightning rod it needs to be at its best.
His 10 comrades on the defensive unit play with such remarkable speed because, in part, they let him do the thinking.
“Sherm has really gotten us to not even worry about what the [opposing] offense is doing,” rookie star Nick Bosa said. “Just worry about our assignments and our job. Just keep playing.”
The 49ers didn’t so much conquer the Vikings as bludgeoned them. Coach Kyle Shanahan scripted a diabolical game plan, opening the game by dazzling Minnesota with Jimmy Garoppolo’s passing and then, with the Vikings on their heels, turning the page and bludgeoning them into submission with a relentless (47 carries, 196 yards) running game.
The immediate future of this team, though, is in the hands of its defense. The 49ers limited the Vikings to 90 net yards of offense through the first three quarters and 147 for the game. They locked the run game in a closet and sacked Cousins six times for 46 yards lost.
“It looked like they just got off blocks well and had extra guys at the point of attack,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, a respected defensive strategist, conceded.
There were no extras on the field for the 49ers. Just 11 men swinging hammers and delighting rollicking sellout crowd. There is plenty of talent, to be sure, under the guidance of firebrand coordinator Robert Saleh, whose résumé continues to shine.
But Sherman, an unofficial assistant under Saleh, is the personality behind this bunch. His healthy presence is essential to any chance of reaching, much less winning, a Super Bowl.
Which is why that puddle, which could have been the cause for Sherman limping into the trainer’s room, can exhale. And, if it knows what’s good for it, vanish long before the NFC Championship Game next weekend.