For as long as most can remember, the San Francisco 49ers have always been a team of destiny, leaving their mark on the NFL with several moments frozen in time. While the teams of recent have not nearly compared to the iconic play of the legendary dynasty teams of the '80s and '90s, coach Jim Harbaugh’s Niners have certainly held their own.
In three straight seasons, they’ve hit double-digit wins and made the playoffs, which is a franchise-best for a new head coach (via the team’s public relations director, Bob Lange). To do that, it has to be a team that makes plays—and the 49ers do, in all three phases.
And as a team that has also really learned to finish games, there have been some thrilling endings.
The performances were really enjoyable for 49ers faithful, especially as many of the all-timers and fan favorites went on to have banner years. On the other hand, a lot of these games were fairly gut-wrenching at times. But it was all part of the experience.
Without the bad, we could not appreciate the good.
Looking back on it all, there were several memorable events when re-evaluating this most recent 16-game campaign. In the following breakdown, we’ll take a closer look at all of our favorite performances, plays and defining moments of the 2013 season.
There were times when the 49ers were without essential defensive players, prompting a next-man-up situation in the Bay Area. One of the notables to step into the lineup and perform well was rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier, a pass-rush specialist from Auburn.
While he had been roaring toward the quarterback for consecutive games behind fill-in starter Dan Skuta, even going back to the preseason, he hadn’t connected when the passer still had the ball.
In his third game as a featured player on defense, with regular starter Aldon Smith on leave, Lemonier finally broke through.
Versus the Arizona Cardinals, the Niners had started a bit slow, particularly on the offensive side. But shortly before the end of the first quarter, the bullish speed-rusher fired past the left tackle and bagged quarterback Carson Palmer in the end zone for his first career sack and a safety.
Lemonier’s big play gave the 49ers the ball and the momentum, and not long after, tight end Vernon Davis took this game over.
In a year when San Francisco was getting contributions from unexpected places and relying on it for its survival, this play exemplified the next-man-up mantra and the total team football that the 49ers play. Considering the fact that Lemonier projects to be around for a while, this might be remembered as his coming-out moment.
The 49ers went into Week 4 restlessly situated at .500, riding a two-game losing streak, which happened to be a first under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Not only was the offense being questioned for its lack of productivity over the prior two games, but folks were wondering how effective the defense could be without two of its four starting All-Pro linebackers, Patrick Willis (groin) and Aldon Smith, unable to play.
In a division matchup that turned out to be an early-season must-win, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman had his coming-out game in a season when he would make a case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
It was a clinic.
While Bowman only had six tackles, which was one of his lowest totals of the season, he was all over the grid. The Rams couldn’t get a lock on him. In turn, the entire defense played tight around No. 53, as quarterback Sam Bradford completed only 19 of 41 passes that day and St. Louis mustered just 11 points total.
It was as strong as any defensive performance by this unit in 2013, and Bowman led the charge.
Tackle count aside, his day still included two sacks (a career high), two stuffs and a forced fumble, really registering a complete game. The turnover capped the game off, too. Complementing Frank Gore’s 153-yard day on the ground, Bowman was 100 percent lights out on defense.
Afterward, Bowman spoke about his mentality heading into this win, via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com:
When I woke up this morning, I told my GM, "I’m going to get this win for you."
Not wanting to lose three games (in a row), facing a division opponent, remembering the game here last year. Playing for Aldon, playing for Pat. I like to look at myself as raise the game if a link gets taken out of the chain, someone has to step up. I just played my game.
This game altered his trajectory for the rest of the season.
After losing Chris Culliver to an ACL injury, Marcus Cooper to Kansas City and Nnamdi Asomugha to Father Time, it seemed like the 49ers were exposed at cornerback this season. They were not nearly as deep as anticipated, and the defense began relying on guys who hadn’t proved themselves.
If the Niners didn’t get results, it could’ve hindered them for the year.
One of the depth corners the team plugged into the lineup early on in the season was Tramaine Brock, a former undrafted free agent brought in from Belhaven in 2010. For years he sat and developed, seeing reps here and there but nothing significant. Having matured on the bench, this year was his first real crack at it.
And he flourished.
In Brock’s debut as a featured corner versus the Houston Texans in Week 5, he undercut a throw intended for All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson and burst onto the NFL scene in extraordinary fashion. This defensive touchdown marked the beginning of a very solid year for the fourth-year pro—one that saw him play his way into a new contract.
Including the pick-six, he led the 49ers defense in interceptions in 2013 with five.
It was one of the more heads-up plays of the season, really exemplifying the above-average level of play San Francisco gets from its special teams. Not only are the 49ers stout in coverage and in the kicking game, but they also make plays.
One of the special teams sparks happened in a rivalry game versus the Seattle Seahawks, courtesy of mercenary special teamer and part-time receiver Kassim Osgood. On this play, the 49ers defense, holding a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, got a stop deep in Seattle territory.
The score and tempo was close, even though the 49ers were hosting the rematch at Candlestick Park.
Osgood had been on the punt team all season and had demonstrated his value, but this was his single most valuable play of the season and arguably the best by coach Brad Seely's special teams unit in 2013. Without this astute play by the specialist, who knows how this game ends.
Especially when you consider that this block resulted in a Phil Dawson field goal and the 49ers only won by two points.
Osgood later told Chris Biderman of Scout 49ers that the Seahawks had left a gap open on the two previous punts before his block. And when they didn’t adjust, Osgood made the conscious decision to shoot the gap and go for the block, which turned out to be one of the big plays in San Francisco’s win.
He also recovered a muffed punt for a touchdown during the season.
One of the more impressive streaks this year was by All-Pro place-kicker Phil Dawson, who was signed in the offseason to remedy the position. He was pretty much on from start to finish, acclimating to the winds of Candlestick Park before going on to drill 27 consecutive field goals.
That streak was the best ever in the history of the organization.
Dawson also hit multiple game-winners and had four boots from 50-plus yards out this season (53, 55, 52 and 56). His 32 field goals were also the second most in a single season in 49ers history. It’s hard to argue that Dawson isn’t the best kicker in the business right now.
Since the day he was drafted, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was always this hulking, genetic mutant who runs like a gazelle, making him one of the more unique physical specimens across the NFL landscape.
Davis is comparable to Detroit Lions mega-man wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Houston Texans hybrid defensive tackle J.J. Watt or the ever-so-powerful Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings. Physically, these men just hail from another planet.
It’s unbelievable what they can do on a football field.
Numbers aside, big No. 85 was able to showcase that very talent in the Week 13 throttling of the St. Louis Rams.
In this game, Vernon Davis hopped his way to 82 yards and a touchdown (20.5 YPC). He made big grabs and leapt clear over other full-grown human beings. It was quite the sight to see, especially since it resulted in big yardage and an eventual score. While it’s not advisable to leave the ground like that, it was as entertaining as anything you’ll see in pro football.
This was not one particular moment—there were too many throughout the season to even count.
The Herculean catches from Anquan Boldin were a benchmark for the 49ers passing offense this season. When all else failed, throw a prayer up to No. 81. And more often than not, he came down with it. At 33 years old, it was one of the more impressive displays by any league vet.
In his 85 grabs this year, many were eye-opening circus grabs that most receivers dream of making at the NFL level.
In Week 15 road victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers special teams unit once again had a big role.
Not only was the unit stout throughout the day, but in a game where the San Francisco offense allowed quarterback Mike Glennon and Co. to stick around, the special teams was able to hit the walk-off score to officially close the game out.
Leading 23-14 near the end of the game—having failed to score a touchdown and settling for another field goal—the 49ers were set to give the ball back to the Bucs. At that point, it seemed like Tampa Bay had enough juice to score quick and maybe pull off the upset at home.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Bucs tried the unthinkable, which was a reverse on the return that wound up on the turf.
Sweeping in to pick it up without a moment’s hesitation was tailback/special teams gunner Kendall Hunter. He was the first one down the field and made a spectacular effort play, extending San Francisco’s lead and essentially putting the nail in the coffin.
It was a huge play.
With only 18 seconds of regulation left in the regular season, wide receiver Quinton Patton managed to crack our top 10.
In the season finale versus the Arizona Cardinals, tied at 20-all, the rookie wideout came up with an acrobatic 22-yard sideline grab over the top of the defensive back, coming straight back down to the ground and getting both feet in bounds. Had Patton not made the catch, it’s possible the 49ers do not get in field-goal range and this game goes to OT.
At that point, anything could’ve happened.
It was the layup that won the game for San Francisco. And moreover, the 49ers haven’t had an unknown make a play on offense in Jim Harbaugh’s entire three-year tenure with the team. This was far more than just a play helping the team at that time—there was a bit of redemption peppered in.
It was also a sign the Niners needed before entering the playoffs without Mario Manningham.
Game-winning field goals are big time.
The best teams need a clutch kicker, and with the year the 49ers had where they struggled in the red zone as badly as they did, it was extremely comforting to know that Dawson was at the helm.
While his streak of 27 straight kicks was impressive, as were the multiple 50-yarders, his shining moment came in Week 14 versus the Seattle Seahawks. It was another close one versus their rival. With just 31 seconds left on the clock, down one point and with playoffs on the line, Dawson drilled a make-or-break field goal to win it.
He was the hero that day.
Good? No. Defining? Yes.
Nobody is going to say this was the one play that cost them the game—or at least they shouldn’t—because the onus was on the 49ers to do more throughout. Nevertheless, it certainly was the backbreaker for San Francisco and an abhorrent call by the referees.
On a 3rd-and-2 play with 3:18 remaining in the game, and San Francisco holding a three-point lead, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks fired off the edge and blew up Saints quarterback Drew Brees, causing him to fumble right into the arms of defensive captain Patrick Willis.
It looked like the 49ers’ ballgame.
Then…there was laundry on the field. Brooks was flagged for unnecessary roughness, citing an illegal hit to the quarterback’s head. This gave New Orleans a fresh set of downs and allowed them to tie the game, and then come back in win it on a game-winning field goal by Garrett Hartley.
If the 49ers could have one call changed in 2013, it'd be this one.
Even though the 49ers were hosting, and they were the team fresh off a Super Bowl appearance, it was Green Bay that appeared to be the favorite.
The Packers staff had reportedly trekked up to Texas A&M to study the read-option, via USA Today Sports, and this time they were bringing an enraged Clay Matthews and an athletic first-round pick in Datone Jones. There was also plenty of talk regarding what Colin Kaepernick could and could not do as an NFL quarterback.
It seemed like the Packers were primed to get the better of the 49ers after losing two straight to them.
However, when it came down to it, and Rodgers put up 333 passing yards and three touchdowns (one interception), Kaepernick still managed to one-up him, breaking the 400-yard mark and throwing three touchdowns of his own with no turnovers. Kap also ran for 22 yards.
Offensively, the breakout performances didn’t end there.
In his first-ever regular-season game with the San Francisco 49ers, 33-year-old wide receiver Anquan Boldin absolutely brought the house down. The Packers simply could not stop him. He had corners and safeties dangling off him, and he was still powering through to make the catch.
Then once he had possession, Green Bay’s defensemen were bouncing off Boldin’s dense frame like a bumper car as he rumbled for dozens of yards after the catch.
This game was one of the big offensive showings by both players, and it illustrated how prolific Kaepernick and Boldin could be together. It would become a dynamic on-field relationship that would thrive all season, carrying this team through hard times.
This was very much Davis’ season to shine for the 49ers, as he emerged as arguably the most important cog on offense.
The team needed him to pass block, run block and receive, or this unit could not take off on game day. It struggled mightily without him. In three games when Davis was either absent or missed time, the team finished 0-3. This really demonstrated his importance to the 49ers.
And even though he missed that much time, he still had an unbelievable year.
There was no better performance than his career-best regular-season game versus the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6. Davis absolutely demolished the Cardinals, ripping them for 180 yards and two touchdowns on eight grabs (22.5 YPC). This is what unstoppable looks like at the NFL level.
And it’s rare.
Even though ex-teammate, future Pro Football Hall of Fame wideout and current Fox analyst Randy Moss questioned the natural chemistry between quarterback Colin Kaepernick and tight end Vernon Davis, it was a relationship that really blossomed on the field.
The shining play happened versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With Davis singing turf on his way down the field, Kaepernick escaped the pocket, cocked back on that Howitzer and let it rip like we’ve never seen. The launch point was at the 40-yard line and it went three yards deep in the end zone, hooking up with Davis for what was officially ruled as a 63-yard touchdown.
There was so much air under it—it was easily the passing play of the season for San Francisco.
DeSimone (@DeSimone80) December 16, 2013
Without question, this will go down as the play of the year and one of the greatest in 49ers' regular-season history.
In Candlestick Park’s last-ever game, when it looked like the Atlanta Falcons were going to put San Francisco’s lights out, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman made the play that helped preserve the venue’s legacy, while adding one more unbelievable moment in NFL lore.
On a 2nd-and-1 with 1:28 remaining in the game, quarterback Matt Ryan was a strike away from sealing the deal. In a remarkable effort play, Bowman broke on a bobbled ball by receiver Harry Douglas (assisted by Tramaine Brock) and wound up taking it 89 yards to the house.
This one play restored faith in the 49ers, sent San Francisco to the playoffs for a third year in a row and gave Candlestick Park the most magical ending it could’ve hoped to have had.