If you’re looking for content that’s going to dwell on the negative side of things, this probably isn’t the piece for you. However, if you happen to be seeking some kind of peace of mind, I write this in the hopes that it brings salvation to the 49ers fans who are hurting after yet another soul-crushing playoff loss.
Yes, this season won’t end in a Super Bowl berth or the 49ers finally adding that sixth Lombardi to their trophy case. However, if we take a step back (which I understand many may not be willing to nor want to do at this juncture after the way yesterday’s game played out) and look at the bigger picture, the fact they made it as far as they did was a phenomenal achievement in itself.
The hardest thing for me to come to terms with as I write this is just simply knowing that this ride is really over. It felt like something special was at play during these playoffs and that the 49ers were poised to ride off into the sunset after a storybook ending. But, the toughest pill to swallow has known that we are closing the chapter for good on this 2021 team that brought so much joy.
So as I sit here and attempt to come to terms with how this all played out, I simply can’t help but dwell on how exactly we got here. The idea of this 49er team playing this late into the playoffs (or in the playoffs at all) was unthinkable at various points during this season. This team even getting here was a major victory in itself, even if we struggle to acknowledge that at this moment as we sort through the agony of defeat.
NOBODY gave this 49ers team a shot after a rocky start saw them lose four in a row between weeks 3 and 7. Or after they fell to 3-5 after a home loss to a Cardinals team that was missing its two most important players.
At so many junctures, this 49ers team was left for dead, only to find a way to persevere and keep hope alive. They continued to do that all the way until reaching the doorstep of Super Bowl LVI before ultimately falling just short.
I remember sitting in a literal monsoon during Week 7 and watching the 49ers lose by double digits to an Indianapolis Colts team that ended up missing the playoffs. I vividly recall sitting in that torrential downpour and thinking to myself, “this team just doesn’t seem to have IT; they don’t have that intangible quality that championship-caliber squads all seem to possess in one way or another”
And man, was I WRONG. That team I watched stumble around on the mud-covered Levi’s stadium field managed to pull off an 8-3 finish to the season and sneak into the playoffs on a heroic Week 18 performance. I, for one, will not be discarding the memories we made along the way en route to this magical playoff run, simply because the season didn’t end with a super bowl victory.
Think back to that week 8 game in Chicago. The 49ers' season was on life support, and we saw the beginning of Deebo Samuel’s meteoric rise to superstardom when he took a screen pass 83 yards on 3rd & 19 that helped propel the 49ers to a MUST win road victory over the Bears. This play just scratched the surface of the miraculous stretch of football we were about to see from Samuel, who had by my account one of the most impressive individual seasons in NFL history.
After an inexcusable loss against Arizona in week 9, the 49ers came out in front of a national TV audience to hand the Rams a 31-10 loss that loudly made a statement that they were not done yet. This was the first time all season we saw this 49ers squad play a full 60 minutes in all three phases, and I remember walking out of Levi’s after that game feeling an unbridled sense of optimism that they had what it took to run with anyone.
This team went into Cincinnati and went toe to toe with the eventual AFC Champion Bengals, pulling out a gut-wrenching victory in overtime. Remember how happy you felt when you watched Brandon Aiyuk stretch out for that pylon?
As I sit here typing this, I do so with a smile on my face thinking of how they could pull that one out when all hope seemed lost, which seemed to be the common theme for this team during this roller coaster ride of a season.
The 49ers, even making the playoffs, defied all odds, as the Next Gen Stats win probability model gave them a less than 1% chance of winning their week 18 matchup vs. the Rams when they were faced with the daunting task of needing an 88-yard touchdown drive in the final minute and a half, with no timeouts.
That was the lowest win probability of any game over the last six seasons, including Super Bowl 51 that saw the Patriots erase a 28-3 deficit in the third quarter.
They somehow willed their way in and managed to find a way to go into Dallas and knock off their greatest rival in the history of their storied franchise. A game that saw a sea of red takeover Jerry World, as the 49ers faithful showed up in droves to cheer on a team in the midst of doing something extraordinary.
A week later, they marched into Lambeau field, playing a game in treacherous conditions that saw the temperature hover around zero degrees for the majority of the game. While it was far from an offensive master class by the 49ers, the team as a whole managed to find a way to stay in it and pull off an unthinkable win on a 45-yard field goal from Robbie Gould as time expired on the frozen tundra.
No matter how painful this loss is, I hope with time we can all look back fondly on Jordan Willis, and his incredible special teams play that led to the only 49ers' touchdown of the game after he blocked a Cory Bojorquez punt. What has been dubbed as the “ice block” will forever hold a place in NFL history books, as it was the latest a field goal or punt block was returned for a touchdown in a postseason game in NFL history.
As much as the season-ending stings, maybe one day we will all be able to fondly look back on games like the overtime wins in Cincinnati or in Los Angeles in week 18. Who’s to say we still can’t hold that Willis punt block close to our hearts among all the other great 49ers postseason moments. Why can’t someone feel good about watching this 49ers team march into Dallas and knock off the team that handed them so many season-ending losses once upon a time?
The biggest point I am trying to make here is, that this 49ers team could have folded at many different points this season. I could have easily spent the last month or so doing mock drafts or writing about what free agents fit best with this team in 2022.
But I didn’t. I had the pleasure of embarking on an incredible journey with each and every one of you that saw our beloved team do the impossible week after week before eventually falling just short.
I mentioned that this season felt like a roller coaster, but the thing I will always remember about the 2021 season won’t be the ride itself. It will be all of you who I rode it with, a bond that I personally hold near and dear to my heart, and no amount of playoff losses or turbulent seasons will ever change that.
So as we shift our focus towards a new era of 49ers football, just know that I am beyond grateful for the way I was able to experience the highs and lows of this NFL season with all of you. I wouldn’t trade these last few months for anything in the world. As much as this hurts now, one of these seasons when the 49ers finally get over the hump and hoist that sixth Lombardi trophy, we’ll look back on years like this 2021 season when we were “this close” with a hearty chuckle and a big smile on our faces.