After the 49ers secured their first road playoff win since January 2014, living to fight another day in the Garoppolo era, I got on the phone with my dad to talk about the game. Obviously, we were elated about the win, but there was something else bubbling under the surface, a nagging feeling. One that’s seemingly become all too familiar.
The Niners had so many chances to close things out, but instead, their last four possessions looked like this: punt, interception, punt, punt—the last of which was the most frustrating. Deebo Samuel comes up literal inches short of the first down after a brilliantly called play.
It’s 4th & 1. Time to give the ball to the league’s premier QB sneak maestro to end this. False start because Trent Williams got sent in motion, and Jimmy G snapped before he was set. They punt, and the rest, including a QB draw with 14 seconds and a referee body check, is history.
It wasn’t until my dad mentioned something my uncle had said that everything clicked. “I shouldn’t feel this bad after a win.” Suddenly, I understood the running theme of the entire season in perfect clarity. The Niners went 10-7, but it must be the most exhausting, interminable, weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth 10-7 in the history of the league. (Yes, I know this is the first year with 17 games on the schedule, but you know what I mean.)
Sometimes the 49ers remind me of the Onion headline that seems to cycle through the Internet in perpetuity. “The Worst Person You Know Makes Great Point.”
The 49ers’ version would read a little like, “The Team You Root for Should Win Easily, But Makes You Want to Die, and Still Wins.”
At least that’s how I felt. The outcomes have run the gamut between heart-stopping to heart-breaking with a frequency that is, simply put, unhealthy. But as I considered this, I wanted to double-check and see if my emotions mathematically aligned with the hard results. So, here’s a win-by-win examination to put in perspective just how hard Niners fans have had it, even when the Niners won.
Week 1: 49ers 41, Lions 33
Talk about auspicious beginnings; the 49ers kicked the season off with what was shaping up to be a tone-setting victory. In many ways, it was. With 8 minutes left in the 4th quarter up 41-17, Jason Verrett went down with a torn ACL. The loss stunned the team and zapped all their momentum.
Suddenly, they had to hold on for dear life as the Lions scored a touchdown, converted a two-point conversion, recovered an onside kick, and then put up another touchdown and converted another two-pointer, making it a one-score game. Thankfully, the Niners recovered the next onside and needed one first down to drain the Lions’ timeouts and kneel them to death.
After a false start, two one-yard Elijah Mitchell runs, and two Detroit clock stoppages, they seemed poised to end it on a gutsy pass call on 3rd & 13 on which Jimmy avoided pressure and delivered to Deebo Samuel, who sprinted past the first down marker to seal the game, and just like that the Niners narrowly avoided defeat… Just kidding! He fumbled, and the Lions recovered with 49 seconds left. Did you forget about that? I sure did.
Thankfully, the Niners D held, and the Lions turned it over on downs at the San Francisco 29 yard line. To quote the top commenter for this game’s YouTube highlights, “The last two minutes felt like an eternity…. Thanks for giving me heart problems, 49ers.” I agree, Lycan4647, along with the other 1.5K fans who liked your comment.
Week 2: 49ers 17, Eagles 11
The 49ers concluded their stay back East against the Eagles in the kind of gut-it-out fashion that we’ve all come to know and fear. After starting the game with four straight punts, the Niners took the lead right before half with Jauan Jennings's career TD to cap a 97-yard drive. They had that opportunity to do so because of a blocked field goal and a dramatic goal-line stand. Thankfully, they never gave the lead back, and even though this once again ended as a one-score game, it never really felt out of control.
Week 8: 49ers 33, Bears 22
After losing four games in a row, which included a bye week, the Niners came out blistering hot and ready to show the NFL that they weren’t dead in the water! Nope, actually, they couldn’t muster a touchdown the entire first half and went into the break trailing 13-9 against one of the rookie QBs they passed on with the third pick.
The Bears extended their lead to 16-9 and proceeded to force the Niners into a 3 & 19 on their own 16-yard line. That’s when, as many could argue, Deebo Samuel saved the season by taking a tunnel screen pass 83 yards to set up the first Niners’ TD. Finally, momentum broke their way, and the Elijah Mitchell-aissance kicked off in earnest. Two and a half quarters of misery, but, all in all, a pretty comfortable win.
Weeks 10-11: 49ers 31, Rams 10 - 49ers 30, Jaguars 10
When it comes to the Misery Meter, these games beautifully rank as 0.0s. The biggest shock was that the Niners could manhandle the division-winning Rams and the Jaguars in equal measure. For two blissful weeks, the 49er fan base knew peace.
Week 12: 49ers 34, Vikings 26
Looking back, this game feels like a walk in the park compared to some of the season’s more traumatizing moments. It felt competitive and within reach, as the teams traded scores to make things a tie game at the half, 14-14. Then, the third quarter produced an offensive extravaganza, racking up a combined 32 points, which led into an offensively dormant fourth in which nobody scored.
All things considered, this wasn’t so bad except that, once again, the Niners remained one score ahead for quarter and change, as if they enjoy dancing on the razor’s edge between victory and defeat. Not wanting to put anyone out of their misery, Robbie Gould shanked what would’ve made it an 11 point game in the 4th quarter. Credit to the defense who held down the fort by bending but not breaking on the Vikings' last two 70+ yard drives that both ended on downs.
Week 14: 49ers 26, Bengals 23 (OT)
The Niners seemed poised to bounce back from an ugly loss in Seattle by taking the burgeoning Bengals out behind the woodshed for an old-fashioned beat down. Have you heard this story before? Stop me if you have. The offense went cold, and a two-score lead went up in smoke faster than Ja’Marr Chase can say, “Cheech and Chong.”
Don’t worry, though, the Niners' offense, thanks to the acrobatic catch by George Kittle, got themselves in position for a game-winning field goal with seconds left, just like the Packers had all the way back in Week 3. The kick went up, and it was NO GOOD. Just remembering this makes my heart wanna jump out of my chest and deflate like a dying helium balloon.
The Bengals received the opening kick and, having cracked the D wide open, methodically marched downfield. It wasn’t until Nick Bosa sacked his former college teammate that the drive stalled, and they were forced to kick a field goal.
Now, with everything on the line, Jimmy Garroppolo regrouped and answered with his own drive, which featured a huge catch by Jauan Jennings, another third-down conversion by Kittle, and a levitating Brandon Aiyuk to wrap it up.
Week 15 49ers 31, Falcons 13
I’ll give the Niners some credit. This was supposed to be easy, and they made it look that way.
Week 17: 49ers 23, Texans 7
The suspense from this game all came from who would be the starting quarterback after Jimmy G tore a ligament in his thumb the week prior. Finally, the Niners landed on Trey Lance, who’d make his second career start in a must-win game to stay ahead of the Saints for a wild card berth.
For an entire half, Lance looked like how most rookies would look. This could’ve been the most demoralizing two-quarters of the season in many ways. Could the Niners lose at home? To the Texans? Would they miss the playoffs? Is Trey Lance good?
Then, like a bolt of lightning, the 21-year-old turned it on. He ran a two-minute drill before the half to get on the board and make it 7-3. After that, he never looked back. Neither did the defense who made sure Houston never even sniffed a scoring opportunity again.
Week 18: 49ers 27, Rams 24
This one should still be fresh in your mind, so I’ll make it quick. Here’s a link to the piece I wrote about this ending last week. To summarize, the Niners didn’t make it easy, but they got there, and that’s all that matters.
All this being said, there’s an old adage I’ll return to on occasion, “A win is a win is a win.” To a little more than half the league, this probably all sounds like champagne wishes and caviar dreams. There’s nothing worse than being uncompetitive, and yet somehow, this team has made being competitive such a topsy-turvy proposition that it makes you wonder.
Jimmy Garopplo was asked after the Dallas game about this very phenomenon, and his response perfectly captures nearly all of these wins, for better and for worse, “It was just an emotional game... Never felt like it was getting away from us. I always felt like we were in control of the game, but it made for some good TV, I guess.”
Good TV? Indeed. Good for a fan’s sanity? Not so much.