Were there tough losses in that stretch? Sure there were. The 13-15 loss to the Giants in 1990. The 30-20 loss to the Cowboys in 1992. The 18-20 loss to the Falcons in 1998. All in the NFC title game. All with very beatable opponents waiting in the superbowl. All opportunities that slipped through our fingers.
But in each of those cases, I was innoculated. In every case we had won a title in the recent past. In every case I took for granted that we would be back.
After 1998, but before Harbaugh, we only made the playoffs twice - in 2001 and 2002. The playoff loses by those teams was not a surprise, and thus not very heartbreaking.
Even last year. A fumble in overtime, right in front of my seat. Tough, especially after spending 4+ hours on my feet screaming at the top of my lungs in the rain. But it had been so long since ANY playoff appearance - nine years to be exact - and coming off that amazing win over New Orleans, I felt lucky to be there. It would have been great to win, and the loss happened in an excruciating fashion, but expectations had been lowered so much that even the better pill of a OT punt return fumble was just barely swallowable.
This is different. We weren't happy to just be there. We didn't feel luckly to be in this position. We dont have multiple, recent lombardi trophy's to console ourself with. We don't even have the solace of getting beaten up and down the field by a superior team. We lost a winnable game, against an inferior team because of mistake after mistake after mistake. And then, in the end, we almost pulled it out. We almost overcame all those mistakes. The combo of the high expectations, the multiple self inflicted wounds, the BS penalties and non-penalties, followed by the excitment, build up and soul crushing disappointment of a comeback that falls 5 yards short. Its like getting kicked in the nuts over and over again in the first half (only if you could actually do that to yourself), and then the worst kind of teasing blue balls in the second half. And all without any of the innoculations that made the losses in the 80s and 90s bearable. That's why, in my opinion, this the worst loss in franchise history. At least since 1984. I feel so empty and so disappointed.
And all our talent and youth and promise is no comfort. The past 10-15 years of futility has taught me not to take anything for granted. In some ways that's good. I appreciated the value of that game yesterday much more so thatn I did watching the 94 niners wax the Chargers. But in another way is bad, because it no longer provides a measure of comfort in the wake of that total dissaster. And it took the 84 niners 4 years to get back to the big game. And the 94 niners never made it back. I'm not 8 years old anymore. Injuries. The salary cap. Age. Emerging talents on other teams. You just never know if this was our best chance. And we completely, totally, blew it.
Here's my growing list of the gaffs that cost us this game. If any of these are different, I think we win the game. You will notice that almost all of them are in the first half.
Mistake #1: 1st play from scrimmage. 2 weeks to prepare and we fuck up the formation. The penalty negates a 20 yard pass to VD. And ultimately results in giving the Ravens the ball at midfield on their first possession. One of many times that we would give them ridiculous field position.
Mistake #2: Offsides on Brooks on a 3rd and 9 on a pass that sails out of the endzone. The next play, Boldin catches a TD, the first of the game.
Mistake #3: Down 7-0, 2nd and 8 at the Ravens 8 after a long drive all the way down the field. The TD pass goes right through Crabtrees hands on a pass that Kaep just put a little too much mustard on. We settle for a FG.
Mistake #4: We're down 7-3 in the 2nd quarter. We're driving down the field on a 1st and 10 from the Ravens 24, LaMichael James fumbles, costing us at least 3 points, and multiple niners stand around as though they thought the play was blown dead. The Ravens take the ball and score another TD to go up 14-3.
Mistake #5: Down 14-3, Kaepernick throws one right to Ed Reed, giving the Ravens yet another short field. The Ravens squander 3 points on the fake FG, but end up pinning us deep in our own end and eventually forcing a punt to midfield.
Mistake #6: Down 14-3, on 3rd and 10 with 1:58 left in the half. Force a punt and we have a chance for a drive and score. Instead Culliver completely blows his coverage, giving up a 56 yard TD on a pass that was a totally underthrown heave. Jacoby Jones falls down on the play, but manages to get up and run it in because Culliver inexplicably hurdles Jones rather than touching him down.
Mistake #7: End of the half, 57 seconds left. 1st and 10 from the 17 and two timeouts. We manage the clock terribly and end up kicking a FG.
Mistake #8: 1st play of the 2nd half. 108 yard TD return on a play with multiple uncalled holding penalties.
Mistake #9: Down 34-29. 1st and goal at the Ravens 7. 2:39 to go. Ngata is hurt, and we've been killing these guys with Gore. James run for 2. Incomplete. Incomplete. Incomplete. Ball game. Gore never gets the ball and Kaep fails to run the ball in despite having a lane on 2nd and 5. Hard not to blame Kaep and/or Roman.
I don't want to dwell on the refs too much. But there were 3 huge noncalls in this game: Blatant holding on the kickoff return TD, offsides on Ed Reed on the 2 point conversion that would have tied it at 31, and, of course, holding on crabtree in the endzone (not that they would ever make that call in that spot).
All of this brings me to my poll. I think there's a genuine argument that this may be one of the most painful losses by any team in any superbowl, just because of the variety of things that suck about it.