YOUR San Francisco 49ers are playing in Los Angeles next Sunday for a shot to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 56. Yes, you read that right, the very same 49ers that were boat raced at home by a Colt McCoy led Arizona Cardinals team, and who sat at 3-5 at the midpoint of the season will play the Rams in Los Angeles in what will be their 5th conference title game since 2011.
To get there, the 49ers had to march into the unofficial cathedral of NFL football at Lambeau Field on a blistering cold January evening and outlast the number one seed on their home turf in a game that the 49ers remarkably never held a lead during regulation in.
They Didn’t score an offensive touchdown. Weren’t able to pick up a first down until there was less than—6:30 remaining in the second quarter. Put a goose egg on the scoreboard until the 3rd quarter.
And guess what? NONE of that mattered. They dug deep and found a way to pull this one out, winning an instant classic on a 45-yard field goal from Robbie Gould (who is now 20-20 on his career postseason field goal attempts) as time expired. Hey, flukey things happen, I get it.
But what cannot be ignored is that this is not an isolated incident. This 49ers team has been pushed to the brink on countless occasions this season, and it feels like every time the going has gotten the tougher, they have defied the laws of physics/science/nature, etc., to deliver an improbable triumph.
What makes it even sweeter is that some of the greatest contributions have come from players who have been doubted or overlooked at every turn. Remember all the fuss about Arik Armstead’s contract extension?
Over the last 3 games, all of which were must-win scenarios to keep the 49ers season alive, Armstead has recorded SIX sacks. FIVE of those six sacks have come on 3rd down, including two in the fourth quarter against the Packers that arguably kept the season alive.
Jordan Willis was best known as a rotational (but effective) pass-rushing piece. That was until he made arguably the biggest play of the 49ers season when he blocked a Cory Bojorquez punt that was scooped up and ran into the end zone by Talanoa Hufanga to tie the game at 10 apiece late in the fourth quarter.
Last week Willis made a couple of impact plays, including a pressure that led to an errant throw from Dak Prescott that K’Waun Williams picked off. This week, Willis forever etched himself into 49ers postseason lore by contributing to two blocked kicks on special teams that ultimately proved to be the difference in a playoff game that many 49ers fans will never forget.
How about Robbie Gould? A player who has long been scrutinized for holding out, people were complaining about him being franchise-tagged or his contract extension, blah blah blah. The only money people should be concerned with is how money Gould is when the stakes are at their highest.
Gould has NEVER missed a kick in the postseason, and he calmly stepped onto the field amid a snow flurry and split the uprights from 45 yards out to send that team from Green Bay packing.
The coldest thing I saw all night on that frozen field was the way Gould immediately turned towards the sideline to celebrate with his teammates after making contact with that ball. He didn’t need to watch it sail through the uprights. He KNEW that he had done it again. That kind of swagger perfectly embodies where I feel like the current state of this 49ers team is. They are unfazed and carrying themselves with the confidence of a unit that knows they can go toe to toe with anybody.
So how exactly did we end up here? Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s taken an incredible amount of resiliency and a hefty dose of good fortune as well. However, none of that would matter if the players on this team didn’t possess a certain level of objective talent. This is a good team that appears to be on a path of destiny, as a season that once hung in the balance is now set up for a potential storybook ending that could go down in the NFL history books.
This team is peaking at just the right time, and they present a tremendous challenge for the remaining playoff field with the tremendous amount of physicality they possess. The 49ers' defensive line has gone into another stratosphere in recent weeks, recording 15 sacks and 77 pressures over their last 3 games.
They’ve had a different player lead each of those games in sacks and pressures, displaying a level of depth that makes me feel like this unit is better than the top-heavy grouping that propelled the 49ers to a super bowl berth in 2019.
For a team that snuck into the playoffs on the last week of the season, you could really point to any of their 10 wins as a “make or break” moment, but for me, this supreme confidence really got some legs under it in week 10 when the 49ers made a statement against the Rams with a 31-10 thumping on Monday Night Football.
That was the first time all season that it felt like we saw a complete win in all three phases of the game against a quality team. The kind of victory that left me (and I imagine many others) believing that this was the 49ers we expected to see entering the season.
Victories like that inspire a certain level of belief in one's self, as you don’t serve up a beatdown to a team like the Rams without being an objectively talented team yourself. That’s what the 49ers have been all season in my eyes, a talented team loaded with blue-chip talent that spent a great deal of time lost, searching for an identity. And let me tell you, based on the last couple of months, it sure seems like they have found it.
Think back to Week 14 in Cincinnati. The 49ers were on the brink of collapse, reeling as the Bengals drove deep into their territory in overtime. Nick Bosa then delivers a huge sack on third down, and as a result, the Bengals only come away with a field goal. This ultimately extended the game and gave the 49ers a chance to respond with a drive of their own to win the game.
The 49ers then march down the field, going 75 yards on seven plays to set up a picturesque moment that saw Brandon Aiyuk stretch out for the pylon on the walk-off touchdown. Just when things appeared to be at their bleakest, the 49ers shattered all sense of dejection and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. And that’s how it has felt for the majority of the last few weeks on this remarkable run. Just when you think all hope is lost, this team responds by doing the extraordinary.
They did the same thing in a win-or-go-home scenario in Week 18. On the road, against a division rival, they raced back from a 17-0 deficit to pull out a 27-24 victory in overtime. Even getting to overtime in that game took a near miracle, as the defense had to stop the Rams offense on three straight plays before Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers' offense marched 88 yards into the end zone with no timeouts, in a little over one minute.
They then went into Dallas and held a Cowboys offense that averaged 31.2 points in the regular season to only 17 points, 7 of which came on a drive that started inside their own 30-yard line. A week later, they went into Lambeau and held the likely NFL MVP to only 10 points on his team’s home field. Despite the turnovers, mistakes, missed opportunities, etc., they still somehow escaped the snow flurry in Green Bay with a victory and a spot in the NFC Championship game.
The point I’m attempting to make here is that the 49ers have won some games down this backstretch of the season that defies every ounce of logic that can be applied to the game of football. What is so fascinating about the 2021 49ers is that it feels like it’s so much more than that. It truly feels like there is something larger at play here and that this team can’t be counted out against anyone because they have this otherworldly ability to pull out the most improbable of victories no matter the circumstances before them.
I’m just some guy, and I know that I have absolutely no authority to name any squad a “team of destiny.” But I just can’t help the fight the feeling that this team stacked with quality players has found some kind of symbiotic synergy with fate. It feels like no matter how much the odds are stacked against them, no matter how great the challenge that awaits them is, they will find a way to make something out of nothing and have you looking up at a scoreboard that has them on top as the clock hits zero.
That kind of supreme confidence starts at the top. Say what you want about the guy, but Jimmy Garoppolo is now 14-5 as the starting quarterback of an underdog team in his career and improves to 21-6 on the road. Going into Los Angeles, Dallas, Green Bay in must-win games against quality football teams is tough sledding for anyone, and the 49ers certainly did not take the easy path to victory in any of those games.
But that’s the beauty of what has made this run so spectacular. The more that chaos gets invited into the picture, the more my confidence in this bunch increases. It’s gotten to the point where nothing feels insurmountable at this point—trailing on the road? No problem. Offense can’t score? Don’t sweat it the defense will hang on until they figure it out. I can’t ever recall watching 49ers football (I’m only 26 years old, mind you) where I felt no matter the circumstances in front of them. They were just going to sort through the madness and find a way to win.
So as the 49ers await their third matchup of the season with the Rams, think back to all the ups and downs of this crazy season. Remember all those moments when hope seemed lost, and optimism was ever increasingly fleeting. Bask in the glory of knowing that the 49ers just discarded the Super Bowl hopes of arguably their two biggest rivals, with one more waiting, and did it in essentially the most unconventional ways you could have ever imagined.
There is something spectacularly special going on with this team right now, and as someone who takes pride in doing my due diligence with statistics and the studying of game film, I can tell you that it feels damn good to sit here talking about something like this that cannot be quantified. This team is a little over halfway home on a miracle run, and no matter how these playoffs shake out, it will be a journey that will forever be etched into the memories of 49ers fans everywhere.