SANTA CLARA — Phil Dawson walked off the field in triumph, his left hand still raised in the freezing air.
San Francisco’s veteran kicker waited 15 years for his first playoff victory. And 11 years to return to the postseason after his lone previous trip after 2002 with Cleveland.
What a memorable day Dawson had Sunday, kicking the winning 33-yard field goal in the bitter cold as time expired at Green Bay, sending the 49ers (13-4) into the NFC divisional round this weekend at Carolina.
“This is fun, it’s been a long time coming,” Dawson said Tuesday. “To be around this kind of locker room and these kind of coaches, where this isn’t a surprise, this is expected, this is what everything’s geared for all year long, it’s fun to be a part of that.”
Even given single-digit temperatures that made for challenging playing conditions, coach Jim Harbaugh said he would have let Dawson go for it with the game on the line from as far out as 53 yards.
Dawson was thrilled he could kick from 20 yards closer.
As steady as Dawson has been in his first season with San Francisco — delivering on 32 of 36 field goals and making a franchise-record 27 in a row before the streak ended Dec. 29 at Arizona — even he knew nothing was guaranteed kicking on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
Dawson had long envisioned such a moment, unsure whether he would get his shot with a playoff game on the line.
“I’d like to say yes, but you never really know,” Dawson said. “I’ve watched way too much playoff football at home. I’d see games, not necessarily all game-winning situations but a big kick would come up, maybe it was bad weather, a hostile environment or whatever the case may be, and I just quietly wondered, ‘I wonder how I would handle that?’ I put the work in to be prepared if that day ever came. It came for me Sunday, and it was fun to have an opportunity and experience winning with my teammates.”
Dawson departed Cleveland after 14 seasons for a fresh, winning start out West. A fan favorite for the Browns, his former city is happy for him now as hard as it was to see Dawson go.
“I was never bitter, I was very happy where I was, very grateful to play all the years I did in Cleveland,” he said. “I would have loved to experience this with the people there. That’s a city starved for playoff success. They’re going to get it someday, and I’ll be very happy for them when that day comes.”
Now, the Niners are expected to re-sign him when his one-year contract expires. Dawson has said he would love to be back, while Harbaugh has said he will work on keeping Dawson around — saying a couple of weeks back, “Pay the man.”
“I’m one of his biggest fans,” linebacker Patrick Willis said. “That guy is amazing.”
Dawson wants to cherish this opportunity, realizing how fleeting success can be, perhaps even more so as an NFL specialist at this late stage of his career.
“He continues to bring value each and every week,” tight end Vernon Davis said Tuesday. “He’s been clutch for us. I’m happy for him, and I’m happy to have him on this team as we continue to move forward. I look forward to seeing him help us.”
Dawson, who turns 39 on Jan. 23, credits everyone for doing their job in such tough circumstances — from the offense getting him closer to rookie long snapper Kevin McDermott and holder Andy Lee.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 11-yard run on third-and-8 set up Dawson’s winning kick, which was nearly blocked.
“I think I walked away from that with the reality that every field goal, you’re inches away from it being blocked,” Dawson said.
Once back in the locker room, Harbaugh and Dawson spent a quiet moment together following a team prayer. The coach could sense the importance of Dawson’s accomplishment to the kicker.
“You could tell he’s just happier maybe than he’ll ever be and he’ll remember that for many years to come,” Harbaugh said. “The story the good man shall teach his son. And he’ll remember it. When he’s old, he’ll feel very good about that, what he accomplished. It was just a great moment. Just eye-to-eye looking, knee-to-knee looking at him. That was why I was so ecstatic.”
Dawson is determined to help keep this postseason run going. This week, his wife and three children will travel from their home in Texas to be in the stands.
“To be here, it’s just been a tremendous ride, it’s been a special season,” Dawson said. “I don’t want it to end any time soon.”
NOTES: CB Carlos Rogers, who missed the Green Bay win with an injured right hamstring, expects to return against the Panthers. “I think so,” he said while leaving. “I’ve been running.”