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Looking back at the 49ers’ last 2 (failed) Super Bowl trips

The last two championship games against the Chiefs and Ravens weren’t pretty for a multitude of reasons.

Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

At one point in history, the San Francisco 49ers had a winning streak like no other: They didn’t lose Super Bowls. Playoff games were fine, and NFC Championships were gut-wrenching but okay. Super Bowls, they didn’t lose.

Then Super Bowl XLVII came along in 2013. While it was already bad that the 49ers had lost that particular game, the fact they lost their first Super Bowl carried with it emotions similar to Undertaker fans seeing him get drilled by Brock Lesnar in Wrestlemania.

It was that strange.

Time has certainly passed since those last two clunky championship games. While it’s always too soon, it may be a good idea just to discuss what happened and hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

Super Bowl XLVII

Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

The Season

The San Francisco 49ers came out in many ways better than their 2011 season. In the prior season (head coach Jim Harbaugh’s first), the 49ers, who were assumed to be picking in the top five of the NFL draft, wound up bludgeoning teams and snatching the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. After two key Kyle Williams fumbles, they lost the NFC Championship to the eventual champions, the New York Giants. While Williams was the scapegoat, the 49ers had no pass game outside of tight end Vernon Davis and the Giants knew it.

For Jim Harbaugh’s second season, the 49ers upgraded the wide receiver room by selecting A.J. Jenkins in the draft and signing Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in free agency. Jenkins wound up playing only three games in 2012 and dropped his sole target. Manningham tore his ACL in December that year and went on IR, leaving Moss and mainstay Michael Crabtree.

Quarterback Alex Smith had revitalized his career in 2011; prior to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival, Smith was seen as a bust and a mistake in drafting as Aaron Rodgers was also available in their respective draft. Under Harbaugh, Smith improved so much that he was a top-10 quarterback in almost every stat they had for the position. In 2012, Smith led the league in passer rating and had a notable game where he dismantled the then-top-ranked defense through several weeks in the Arizona Cardinals.

Unfortunately, the 49ers had a weird pattern. The entire regular season went win, win, loss/tie. Two wins usually meant disaster approached. One of those such games was Week 10 against the then-St—Louis Rams, where Smith was concussed, and second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick stepped in. Smith remained in concussion protocol for the following week when the 49ers played the Chicago Bears in Monday Night Football, a game where Kaepernick made a name for himself, hitting everything in sight and blowing the Bears out. For a quarterback many labeled a project his rookie season, Kaepernick appeared much improved in the pocket and with his footwork.

A quarterback controversy dominated the next few weeks, with Harbaugh selecting Kaepernick due to the cannon of an arm the quarterback possessed. Smith was third in the league in passer rating, leading it in completion percentage. That, along with experience, wasn’t enough. Smith was demoted.

Even with Kaepernick as the starter, the 49ers' win-win-and-loss pattern didn’t change, and the cracks in Kaepernick’s game started to surface. The 49ers won a wild game against the New Orleans Saints, but two pick-sixes will make any quarterback look good. The 49ers beat the New England Patriots in Foxborough, but that was reminiscent of the 2024 Baltimore Ravens-49ers game, where everything seemed to bounce the visiting team’s way. The Patriots also almost won that game, but a key Michael Crabtree touchdown sealed things late. Kaepernick had some great throws and a terrible read that led to an interception.

Another sign of things to come was a 42-13 blowout the very next week (December 23) against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. While the Seahawks would exit the postseason in the divisional round, Harbaugh was outmatched in that particular game, and Kaepernick looked pedestrian.

Regardless, the 49ers locked up the No. 1 seed for the postseason, and Kaepernick simply looked inexperienced and still learning. His big plays far, far outweighed anything bad.

The Postseason

With the No. 2 seed, the 49ers had a first-round bye and began the postseason against the visiting Green Bay Packers. In the first offensive series, Kaepernick threw a pick-six. After that, the 49ers rolled out the pistol formation (Kaepernick’s bread and butter from college and something that paid dividends during the regular season) extensively and read-optioned the Packers into oblivion.

In the NFC Championship against the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers found themselves down 17 points. In the second half, the most grimy and gritty game transpired. Every time the 49ers came close to tying or taking the lead, David Akers missed a kick, Michael Crabtree would fumble, or anything else. Once they put the ball into Frank Gore’s hands, the running back strutted into the end zone, and the 49ers' defense held down the fort.

The lead-up

Super Bowl XLVII was commonly called “The Har-bowl” as it had Jim Harbaugh squaring off against his brother, Baltimore Ravens head coach John. The 49ers played the Ravens in the season prior to Thanksgiving, and the Ravens won that contest.

When the 49ers arrived, things already started looking strange. Randy Moss, a hall-of-fame wide receiver in every regard, started calling himself the best receiver ever. Arguably, it's the right attitude to have, but probably not the best thing to say when you’re wearing the same uniform colors as Jerry Rice.

Cornerback Chris Culliver went onto a radio show and made a fool of himself by making some comments about gay football players. The 49ers themselves quickly addressed the comments.

As far as who would win, the 49ers were favored by four points. That didn’t stop analysts from saying things along the lines of the Ravens wanting it more despite the 49ers being acknowledged as the better team. That’s probably what happens when the quarterback of the team not favored is Joe Flacco.

The Game

If there ever was a sign things weren’t going to go well in a Super Bowl, the 49ers’ first play, an opening illegal formation penalty (that wiped off a 20-yard Vernon Davis reception), was the perfect indicator. The first half was almost all Ravens, and Joe Flacco made his case for being an elite quarterback and worthy of a ridiculous contract extension. Only one of those things was ever agreed upon after the game.

The 49ers, on the other hand, scored 6 measly points thanks to David Akers doing non-David Akers and making his field goals (he started missing everything in the regular season). It didn’t help when, on their third possession, LaMichael James fumbled the ball. Then, on the following offensive possession, Kaepernick threw an interception sailing over Randy Moss’ head. If you thought that left little hope, the Ravens kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half had you losing interest fast.

What happened following the aforementioned house call separated this game from all Super Bowls. The Superdome went into a full power outage, and even CBS, the network the game was on, had issues with cameras and speakers.

However, the power outage seemed to revitalize the 49ers, and they started clawing their way back into the game with Kaepernick’s arm, legs, and Frank Gore. Midway through the 4th quarter, the 49ers almost tied it up with a Kaepernick touchdown, but the two-point conversion failed. They had one more shot to punch it in and finish this. Unfortunately, when they went into 1st and goal with two minutes left, bad clock management, terrible playcalling, and fear of giving Frank Gore the ball (for God knows what reason) led to a turnover on downs.

The Ravens proceeded to milk the last of the clock, taking a safety with the final seconds to just drip precious seconds away. Finally, the torture was over.

The Aftermath

The 49ers nearly made it back the following year, but due to a slump during the regular season and the Seattle Seahawks pulling wins out of their [decorum], the NFC Championship game was played at then-Century Link Field in Seattle, and the 49ers were reduced to a wild card team.

The 49ers got a lead early, but the Seahawks rallied late. With just minutes to go in the game, Kaepernick started moving the team down the field with plenty of time and time-outs. Then, for whatever reason, he threw a shot to Michael Crabtree in double coverage. Enough for a tip from Richard Sherman and an interception by Malcolm Smith.

That play may have been the beginning of the end of the Harbaugh 49ers as the following year (Harbaugh’s last) was marred with “will they or won’t they” contract discussions with their head coach and numerous leaks pouring out of the building over all the dirty laundry.

The one play everyone remembers going wrong

There were a few of those. The top winners are either Jacoby Jones’ house call kickoff return, where Bruce Miller was held to oblivion with no flag, or the 49ers’ final play on offense, where Kaepernick did a fade to Crabtree, and the refs didn’t throw a flag for contact between Crabtree and Jimmy Smith.

If you listen to the play-by-play, they said, “They aren’t going to throw a flag there to decide the Super Bowl,” which, as we found later, is nonsense.

Overall, referee Jerome Boger’s crew was downright awful in this game. Yes, the 49ers lost this game from James fumbling, Moss calling it a career four quarters early, Culliver showing us how bad at coverage he is, among other issues, but the officiating was still terrible.

One incident that sticks out was an early scrum between the 49ers and Ravens. During it, a Ravens player is seen clearly shoving an official out of the way to join in. That’s an automatic ejection, but not here. There was also a helmet-to-helmet hit on Crabtree a few plays before the fade that no one threw a roughing call for.

While many think there’s favoritism to the Ravens, that’s just as equal nonsense. The truth of the matter is Jerome Boger’s team was far over their heads, and they called it one of the worst Super Bowls in recent memory. If the 49ers didn’t make such dumb mental mistakes in the first half, they’d have run away with this one, but a lot of what we saw all season just imploded, and the distractions during Super Bowl week didn’t help.

Super Bowl LIV

NFL: FEB 02 Super Bowl LIV - Chiefs v 49ers Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Season

Unlike the season leading up to that first Super Bowl loss, this 49ers’ season wasn’t nearly as eventful in 2019. It was more surprising that the 49ers found the success they had. It’s amazing what happens when your quarterback doesn’t get knocked out three games in.

The 49ers secured Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017 with a midseason trade to the New England Patriots. With limited knowledge of the offense, Garoppolo took the 49ers on a five-game winning streak to get the team to 6-10. The following season, the 49ers were seen as media darlings, with a wildcard berth being a sign of progress with Kyle Shanahan’s program installation.

That didn’t happen since Garoppolo got knocked out in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs. The 49ers stumbled to the second-worst record in the league and managed to pick up Nick Bosa in the draft.

2019 was seen as the true test. The 49ers came out sloppy for several weeks but still managed to pull wins out of their [decorum]. It was Monday Night Football against the Cleveland Browns where they put the NFL on notice that San Francisco was back.

They suffered their first loss against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10. A loss that suffered because kicker Robbie Gould was out.

Two games later, the 49ers entered The Gauntlet. A three-game stretch that many thought would define their season. They began with the Green Bay Packers, where they absolutely embarrassed Aaron Rodgers and company 37-8. They then lost a close game to the Baltimore Ravens in the rain (gee, more rain? Isn’t that funny how that hurts all quarterbacks? Who would have thought). The game of note was the final game where they exited The Gauntlet: a wild 48-46 win over the New Orleans Saints that many called the best game of the year and is quite possibly in the top 5 for games of the decade.

Known for their defense, the 49ers D in the Saints game was non-existent and trick plays along with Jimmy Garoppolo saved the day. It all ended with a key fourth-down George Kittle run where just about every Saints player tried to pile up and bring him down, getting a facemask penalty for their efforts.

The 49ers didn’t run away with the No. 1 seed, however. Things came down to a crucial fourth-down call against the Seahawks in Seattle during the final week of the regular season. Dre Greenlaw stopped the Seahawks an inch short of the goal line to give the 49ers the No. 1 seed. It was the first time the 49ers won in Seattle since 2011.

The Post Season

Securing a bye, the 49ers opened up their postseason against the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings had knocked off the biggest threat to the 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes, the New Orleans Saints, in an upset and now had to get through San Francisco.

After throwing a few catchable interceptions and one true interception, Kyle Shanahan made the 49ers run the ball down the Vikings’ throats, winning 27-10. The NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers was a repeat of their regular season meeting.

In that NFC Championship, Jimmy Garoppolo went six for eight. Yes, you read that right: Garoppolo threw eight pass attempts. Raheem Mostert and the 49ers ground game dominated things, with the defense keeping Aaron Rodgers on one side of the field.

For many who watched closely, there was a bit of foreshadowing that the 49ers may have an issue. The indicator of this was the 49ers letting their foot off the gas in the second half. Several three-and-outs occurred, which gave “Will he do it?” thoughts to Aaron Rodgers leading a comeback. A Richard Sherman pick towards the end stopped any disaster from happening, but for some, the thought of the 49ers giving any sort of chance was unsettling. While they won 37-20, some may have noticed something wasn’t right.

The lead-up

Oddly enough, the 49ers didn’t have much drama in their lead-up. The big questions revolved around Jimmy Garoppolo and if he could win a Super Bowl when the team depended on him.

Many thought this would be a battle of wits between Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan, who were thought of as the best play-callers in the league. It also was the first Super Bowl appearance for Patrick Mahomes, and many wondered how he would fare against one of the league’s best defenses.

The Game

The 49ers put the first points on the board with a field goal, but the Chiefs came right back with a series of plays to get a touchdown. Garoppolo proceeded to throw a terrible interception at the start of the second quarter. A throw that gave the Chiefs three more points to make the game 10-3.

The 49ers roared back with a Kyle Juszczyk touchdown and kept the Chiefs in check for the remainder of the half. With seconds to go, the 49ers got the ball back, and Jimmy Garoppolo threw a nice shot to George Kittle that got wiped off due to offensive pass interference.

The second half had the 49ers regain the lead and proceed to go up 10 points. With 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Patrick Mahomes threw his second interception, and this one seemed to be almost over.

Then, much like the Green Bay game, the 49ers offense stuttered, Kyle Shanahan stopped running the ball, and next thing you know, with 7 minutes left, Wasp, a deep shot to Tyreek Hill happens. From there, it was just a matter of time. The 49ers let their foot off the gas far too early in the game, much like the Packers. This time, the Chiefs punished them for it.

The 49ers would lose the game 31-20.

One thing to note is that while it was not as bad as Boger, Bill Vinovich did call a clunker of a game. Wasp, the play that got the Chiefs back into things happened due to Nick Bosa being held to oblivion. Had he not been, the play never would have made it past the line of scrimmage due to the sack. This was the Chiefs’ all game: holding, holding, holding. There also were head starts for the Chiefs offense up the whammy and a ridiculous Jimmy Garoppolo hit out of bounds that somehow never got called since he’s Jimmy Garoppolo.

Bill Vinovich: He’s known for screwing things up, and he’s your ref for Super Bowl LVIII too.

The Aftermath

In the offseason, star lineman DeForest Buckner was traded to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick that was used to draft Javon Kinlaw.

Many circles predicted we’d see a 49ers/Kansas City Super Bowl the following year, with some even saying San Francisco gets the job done. One-half of that happened with the Chiefs going, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the NFC representative. The 49ers didn’t even make the playoffs.

This time around, the Chiefs were called for holding numerous times, something the officiating crew ignored the previous year, which let the Buccaneers get the win.

The thing that stings the most about this is the 49ers were playing like they were going to win. The Chiefs had absolutely no answer, and Patrick Mahomes seemed to be a shell of himself.

Nowadays, no one brings up the three-and-a-half quarters of bad Patrick Mahomes football, just how awesome he was in the final minutes. I’m glad they forgot about that because what would we have if we held Brock Purdy to the same standard?

The one play everyone remembers going wrong

Wasp. It’s always going to be Wasp. While Chiefs fans find it the best play to save their season, 49ers fans find it as the absolute worst seconds of their lives.

Honorable mention goes to Jimmy Garoppolo, having an open Emmanuel Sanders and throwing a deep shot, only to overthrow him by several feet. Had Garoppolo made that pass, there’s no telling if the Chiefs found a way back in, but it very well could have sealed the deal.

We already discussed how one-sided and embarrassing Bill Vinovich was in the game, but it’s fair to say his lazy dedication to his job wasn’t the reason the 49ers lost. They lost from a defensive collapse. They lost from Jimmy Garoppolo not being able to throw the ball. They lost because Kyle Shanahan stopped running the ball (though they say this might have been from audibles since the Chiefs were daring them to throw).

So, the officiating crew is not the reason the 49ers lost that game; they lost it because they simply took their foot off the gas. Regardless, the fact remains that Bill Vinovich has been responsible for some of the more head-scratching calls and no-calls in the league.

Is the third time a charm?