The last time the 49ers were in an NFC Title Game was 1998, against the Atlanta Falcons. The previous week, the team had finally beaten their nemesis, Brett Farve and the Packers, and hopes were high that another SB title would soon be won. Alas, Garrison Hearst broke his ankle on the first series of the game and the Niners went on to lose 20-18.
Nobody knew it at the time, but that game marked the end of 18 years of dominant 49er football. The following year, in the first game, Steve Young was clubbed into retirement and the team went south for the year.
Many comparisons have been made between last Saturday’s final second win and the 1998 win over the Packers. But that 1998 team was a team and a franchise on the decline. This 2011 team and franchise are on the rise.
Somewhat overlooked in last Saturday’s heroic double comeback performance by the 49ers is the fact that the Saints came back twice in the fourth quarter, too. Both of their efforts were simple toss the ball deep and watch the 49er safeties fall all over themselves while forgetting to tackle the guy with the ball.
This continues a disturbing season long trend and could be fatal against the Giants. It happened against the Cowboys, the Giants, the Cardinals, and the Rams. Two nail-biter wins and two losses. On the plus side, these semi Hail Mary heaves aren’t usually attempted unless the 49ers have a late lead, which is normally preferable to having a late game deficit.
I’m hoping the team isn’t feeling like I’m feeling, because I’m not nearly as pumped up for Sunday’s game as I was for last week’s game. The win last week validated the season and the team. A stubbed toe in that game would have taken a lot of luster off the season and left the fans still wondering if the 49ers could compete with the big boys. That doubt has been exorcised with a vengeance. This team is for real. Anything that happens now is just frosting on the cake. The franchise turning moment has already occurred.
Normally, it’s hard to duplicate the adrenalin after a big time emotional win. But this is the playoffs and every game is a big time deal with season ending consequences. I’m trusting the 49ers have no intention of ending their season Sunday. They are having too damn much fun.
The Giants seem to have a kind of arrogance that they can dick around all year and just turn it on for December and January. Like they found some magic formula back in 2007 when they tiptoed in as a wild card and won it all. But 2008, 2009, and 2010 all rolled by with them packing their bags early. Helmet catches do not tend to replicate. Most years, you need to be the best team, not the luckiest.
The 49ers feel they have to earn this game with hard work. The Giants feel they are the better, more experienced team and that will show itself once the game starts. The Packers tried that same smug formula last week and are now home wringing their hands over a wasted season. Let’s hope the Giants head home next week also, wringing their hands not over a wasted season, but because they WERE NOT THE BEST TEAM.