For most of Sunday’s 31-7 NFC Championship Game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers fans felt a sense of dread and inevitability that had not accompanied any of their last five playoff losses.
Sunday’s loss, a game that fell apart when Brock Purdy exited with an elbow injury in the first quarter and fell apart after Josh Johnson lost a fumble late in the second quarter, was the first lopsided loss in the playoffs the 49ers had suffered since 2003.
All five times San Francisco has lost in the postseason in the past 11 years have been last-second heartthrobs, including a pair of squandered double-digit leads in Super Bowl LIV and the 2022 NFC Championship Game.
This time, loss has come with a sense of resignation. Even before Jalen Hurts’ 1-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the third quarter, a 14-point deficit seemed insurmountable with Purdy injured, then forced to return to the game with a damaged arm when Johnson suffered a concussion.
Injuries dashed fans’ hopes early. Christian McCaffrey’s 23-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7 midway through the second quarter offered a brief glimmer of hope, but Philadelphia responded immediately with a 20-play drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes of the clock. capped off by Miles Sanders 13-yard touchdown run. Three players later, Johnson threw a snap that Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick recovered, and Boston’s Scott ran for a 10-yard touchdown less than a minute later.
Debilitating injuries aren’t new to 49ers fans — Jimmy Garoppolo’s ill health torpedoed the 2018 and 2020 seasons — but San Francisco hadn’t decisively lost a playoff game since January 12, 2003, when they were swept 31-6 by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s a different kind of heartbreak than the heartbreaking defeats that ended previous offerings at the “Quest for Six.” The only real intrigue in the fourth quarter came when a fight broke out with just over four minutes left, ejecting 49ers left tackle Trent Williams and Eagles safety K’Von Wallace.
Most 49ers fans don’t need a reminder of how their other recent playoff series ended, but an update for the unfamiliar: First came Kyle Williams’ punt return in overtime at the 2011 NFC Championship Game (played in January 2012, but concluded the 2011 season), which set up a game-winning field goal for the New York Giants. A year later, the Niners nearly came back from a 28-6 hole in Super Bowl XLVII against this author’s favorite team, the Baltimore Ravens, only to falter on the goal line in the final minutes when offensive coordinator Greg Roman dropped the run game. Roman later became Baltimore’s offensive coordinator and angered fans and players on the East Coast before stepping down earlier this month.
A year later, San Francisco was on the verge of going back to the Super Bowl when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick a game-winning touchdown pass to linebacker Malcolm Smith for an interception, which Sherman later followed up with a memorable interview which became synonymous with the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry.
On February 2, 2020, the 49ers led the Kansas City Chiefs 20-10 in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV and held the ball after Tarvarius Moore intercepted Patrick Mahones in the red zone, but surrendered the last 21 points of the game. After the Chiefs had taken a 24–20 lead on a short Mahomes touchdown pass to Damien Williams, Garoppolo knocked over a wide open Emmanuel Sanders on what would have been a sure go-ahead touchdown. Frank Clark sacked Garoppolo on the next play for a turnover on walks, and the Chiefs hit an insurance touchdown two plays later.
Last year, after thrilling back-to-back wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, the 49ers traveled to Los Angeles to face a Rams team they had swept in the regular season and took a 17-7 lead with 1:59 left in the third quarter, but outscored 13-0 in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo was intercepted by Travin Howard in the final two minutes to seal the game, sealing another blown playoff lead for head coach Kyle Shanahan.
There was no such a shock this time as the final minutes ticked by. The carpet wasn’t pulled out at the last moment. Thoughts were already turning to the severity of Purdy’s injury and potential targets in the next draft.
As of now, the 49ers will have no picks until the end of this year’s third round draft, scheduled for April 27-29 in Kansas City. They traded their top draft picks for Trey Lance last year and acquired Christian McCaffrey in October, but the Niners are in line for three compensating picks at the end of Round 3.