The San Francisco 49ers are headed to their seventh Super Bowl, looking to win a record-equalling sixth. But how did they make it there?
The 49ers as a franchise are synonymous with Super Bowl success, the NFL dynasty of the 1980s and early 90s, winning on each of their first five visits to set the record that has since been broken by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.
Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice; San Francisco’s prior successes were built around the best of the best on offense. This year’s squad, however, stacks up a little differently…
What went right?
San Francisco’s leap to Super Bowl finalists is quite remarkable when considering that this was a 4-12 team a year ago – the second-worst record in football – and 6-10 in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s first season in charge.
One thing that has changed, thankfully for the 49ers faithful, is they’ve had their quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo available to them for the full season. The Niners’ record without him is 4-20 over the last two seasons [factoring in his mid-season singing in 2017 and 2018 injury] and a staggering 21-5 with him on the field.
But, actually, it’s not been Jimmy G that has had this team rolling this year – though he has flashed at points – it’s their relentless run game, built around Shanahan’s ingenious scheme, and devastating defense that has driven their success.
San Francisco are second on the season in both categories, with their 144.1 rushing yards per game second only to likely league MVP Lamar Jackson’s record-breaking Baltimore Ravens unit, while they also slot in second behind the New England Patriots in total defense (281.8 YPG allowed).
What went wrong?
Not a lot. The 49ers came out of the gate fast, riding an eight-game win streak – the highlights of which being a 31-3 Monday Night Football beat-down of the much-fancied Cleveland Browns, a 20-7 road win over divisional rivals and Super Bowl runners-up from a year ago, the Los Angeles Rams, and a 51-13 shellacking of the Carolina Panthers.
But, as has so often been the case in the Russell Wilson era in Seattle, the 49ers’ fun was soon halted by their greatest of divisional foes this past decade as the Seahawks came into Santa Clara and escaped with a 27-24 overtime victory.
Injuries began to creep in, threatening to derail the season, most notably to left tackle Joe Staley, edge rusher Dee Ford – a big-money acquisition in the offseason – to fullback Kyle Juszczyk, so important to the Shanahan’s run scheme, to linebacker Kwon Alexander, kicker Robbie Gould and talismanic tight end George Kittle.
Either side of the Seattle loss, the lowly 5-10-1 Arizona Cardinals played San Fran tough twice, while further defeats came on the road in Baltimore and via a shocker at home to the Atlanta Falcons.
That said, a 37-8 blowout of the Green Bay Packers, a 48-46 shootout win over New Orleans Saints in the Superdome and a sweep of the Rams were interspersed with such setbacks, and the 49ers got revenge over the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 17 to secure the No 1 seed in the NFC.
Nick Bosa. Jimmy G has even said it himself, referring to his torn ACL injury from last year that contributed to the 49ers tanking and getting the rookie pass rusher with the No 2 pick in the 2019 Draft as “a blessing in disguise”.
While a number of players could lay claim to this title, including Garoppolo himself, Kittle, defensive leader and shut-down cornerback Richard Sherman or one from their committee of running backs – Raheem Mostert the most notable breakout star – it is Bosa who is the final piece to this potentially championship-winning jigsaw.
San Francisco’s defensive line has been the star of the show, relentlessly wreaking havoc on opposition quarterbacks to the tune of 57 sacks, and countless more pressures.
They’ve shared the wealth, with their ferocious front four each tallying more than seven sacks over the regular season plus playoffs; Ford has 7.5, DeForest Bucker 8.5, while it’s Arik Armstead and Bosa leading the way with 12 apiece, three of Bosa’s coming in the added pressure-cooker environment of the playoffs.
In the playoffs, the defense has been back to its very best, benefitting from the return of Ford and Alexander from injury.
The Niners D was faltering somewhat down the stretch of the regular season; having allowed an average of just 12.8 points per game Weeks 1-9, that number more than doubled to 26 PPG thereafter with either one of, or both, of Ford and Alexander out injured.
That said, rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw filled in admirably for Alexander, in particular, and were it not for his goal-line stop in the dying seconds of the 26-21 triumph over Seattle in Week 17, San Francisco would have slipped from the No 1 to the No 5 seed and their path to the Super Bowl would have looked very different.
Instead, the 49ers have had the comfort of a bye and two home meetings with the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay, in which they have run out comfortable 27-10 and 37-20 winners, respectively – the scorelines not even true reflections of their sheer dominance in both games.
The defense first sacked Kirk Cousins six times, restricted Dalvin Cook to 18 rushing yards and limited the Vikings to only seven first downs total. Then, a week later, the Niners raced out to a massive 27-0 half-time lead over the No 2 seeded Packers, Mostert finishing with a staggering 220 yards and four TDs on 29 carries and Garoppolo reduced to a mere bystander with only eight pass attempts.
Super Bowl pedigree
If the past two decades have unequivocally belonged to Tom Brady and the Patriots, the 1990s were surely the Dallas Cowboys’, while the 80s saw San Francisco dominate.
The 49ers capped the 1981, 1984 and 1988 seasons with Super Bowl victories, led by the legendary head coach Bill Walsh, while they won the big game again in 1989 and 1994 under George Seifert’s leadership; Montana quarterbacked the first four wins, Young the last of them to famously ‘get the monkey off his back’.
It meant that San Francisco were the only team to hold a 100 per cent win percentage over multiple trips to the Super Bowl, a record that stood until defeat to the Ravens – who took that title from them with their second win in two trips – on their last visit seven years ago.
On that occasion, Jim Harbaugh’s team overcame a 22-point deficit and stadium blackout early in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans to trail by only five at 34-29 in the final two minutes of the game. They got to within five yards of scoring and taking the lead, only for Colin Kaepernick to thrown three-straight incompletions and turn the ball over on downs.
The 49ers would fall at the NFC Championship hurdle a year later, losing to those pesky Seahawks, and haven’t had a winning season – let alone a playoff appearance – since.
The 49er faithful are hopeful a 2020 triumph down in Miami signals a new decade of dominance for the franchise.