San Francisco 49ers: 2 Turning Points in a Fantastic Season

Scott DaileyContributor IJanuary 27, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22:  Justin Smith #94 and Ray McDonald #91 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrate a defensive play in the second half against the New York Giants during the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The sting of the loss to the New York Giants is wearing off, and it’s time for some reflection.

Namely, how did this season happen?

In my title today, I used the word “fantastic” judiciously. Because anyone who predicted the San Francisco 49ers’ just-concluded season would have been indulging in pure fantasy.

After last year’s 6-10 record, realism for the 49ers might have pegged them at 8-8. Optimism might have said 9-7 with an outside shot at the playoffs.

Instead…well, we all know.

There were two turning points in this season—times when the 49ers could have collapsed, but instead came through with impressive victories.

The first came in Philadelphia in Week 4. The Niners were 2-1 following wins over the Seattle Seahawks and the Cincinnati Bengals, and a 27-24 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

The Eagles raced to a 20-3 halftime lead and tacked on another field goal early in the third quarter. Down by three touchdowns, in the second game of a long eastern road trip (the team spent the week between the Philly and Cincinnati games outside Youngstown, Ohio), the 49ers could have packed it in.

Instead, they astonished the Eagles and their fans at Lincoln Financial Field with three unanswered TDs and a 24-23 victory. Rather than limping home at 2-2, they were suddenly 3-1 and on a two-game winning streak—a string that would go unbroken until Thanksgiving night in Baltimore.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22:  Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on against the New York Giants during the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Im
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In fact, the real turnaround may have come during the week the 49ers spent in majestic Boardman, Ohio, outside the DeBartolo family’s hometown of Youngstown.

In a hilarious yet telling column on September 28, Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the team’s stay in a Holiday Inn surrounded by strip malls and fast-food joints. Besides avoiding two trips in two weeks to the Eastern time zone, the Niners and head coach Jim Harbaugh also appear to have done some serious bonding.

A week at a Holiday Inn in Boardman, Ohio, will do that for you.

Before the Philadelphia game, the 49ers may have believed in themselves, but it was probably more faith than reason. After they came back against the Eagles, the 49ers actually had evidence they were becoming a good team.

But just how good? As the Niners stacked up the wins, skeptics grumbled they had played just one credible opponent—the Baltimore Ravens—and had lost. Worse, two weeks after the defeat by Baltimore, the 49ers were beaten 21-19 by the so-so Arizona Cardinals, in a game in which the secondary was badly burned by wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet.

San Francisco had suddenly lost two out of three, and the doubters were preparing to slash the tires on the bandwagon.

Then the Pittsburgh Steelers came to town, on the night the lights went out in San Francisco. Actually, just Candlestick Park. But the two power outages provided abundant metaphor, because the Niners were lights-out in their 20-3 thrashing of the Steelers.

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 12:  Punter Andy Lee #4 of the San Francisco 49ers is blocked by Heath Farwell #55 of the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field December 24, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Jay Drowns/Getty Images)
Jay Drowns/Getty Images

Leading up to that Monday night in December, Pittsburgh held first place in the AFC North by a half-game over Baltimore. (The Ravens had slipped to 10-4 with a loss in San Diego the day before. Both the Steelers and the 49ers were 10-3.) Here was the team, many people thought, that would expose San Francisco as a fraud.

Guess again. The Steelers outgained the 49ers by more than 100 yards, and held the advantage in time of possession. But great kickoff- and punting-team play—a hallmark all season—consistently kept the Steelers starting drives deep in their own territory.

Yes, they gained a lot of ground. But they had even more to cover, and the Niners just kept pulling away.

And pull away they did, until the Giants caught up with them last Sunday. There’s still a lot of grousing about that one, but the Giants played a tremendous game and deserve their spot in the Super Bowl.

Why am I feeling so magnanimous? As the saying goes, it’s easy for a rich man to be a liberal. And 49ers fans should be feeling pretty rich right now. Yes, the team failed to win it all. But pivoting around those two turning points versus the Eagles and the Steelers was indeed a fantastic season.

Something tells me a few more are still to come.