San Francisco 49ers Ultimate Showdown Tournament: First-Round Matchups
The votes are in and the ballots have been counted!
The bracket is finally set and soon we as 49ers fans will find out once and for all who the greatest squad ever to dawn the red and gold really was!
First of all, I want to thank everyone for the fantastic response. The poll received 671 votes. I am thrilled that the rest of the faithful are as interested in this concept as I am!
Unlike 2000 in Florida, no recount is required. The bracket fell out clearly and distinctly, with all the drama of prohibitive favorites and huge underdogs.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for game recaps of all four first-round matchups. An author’s poll will be included with each to track the fans’ pick for each game and compare them to actual results. This is a bracket, so one upset and anything could happen!
Sit back, relax, grab your favorite adult beverage, and get ready for some truly legendary football!
Now, a preview of the first-round matchups:
Game One: (No. 8) 1992 49ers vs. (No. 1) 1984 49ers
The prohibitive and well-deserved tournament favorite 1984 squad garnered an impressive 40.5 percent of the fan vote. They face off against a gritty 1992 team that managed less than 1 percent of the total vote.
The 1984 team puts their near-perfect 18-1 record and Super Bowl XIX title on the line against a 1992 squad that saw Steve Young emerge as the worthy heir to Joe Montana’s legacy.
The 1984 squad came as close to perfection as any team ever has in a 16-game season. They lost just one game, by a mere three points on a questionable defensive penalty that allowed Pittsburgh to score the game-winning touchdown.
They outscored opponents 475-227 in the regular season, and 82-26 in the playoffs en route to 38-16 romp over the Miami Dolphins at Stanford Stadium in Super Bowl XIX.
Led by Joe Montana, Roger Craig, and Dwight Clark on offense, and Ronnie Lott, Fred Dean, and Dwight Hicks and the Hot Licks on defense, the 1984 49ers were a dominant force who together achieved something rarely equaled and never bested in the annals of NFL history.
The 1992 49ers saw an aging Joe Montana miss nearly the entire season with a back injury, before being traded to Kansas City in the offseason. Steve Young stepped in and made the most of his first full season at the helm of the 49ers’ offense.
Under offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, Steve Young passed for nearly 3,500 yards and 25 touchdowns, earning a QB rating of 107.0 and an NFL MVP award.
The 1992 49ers outscored their opponents 431-236 in the regular season, but would be outscored a combined 40-43 in two playoff games, beating Washington by seven, but falling to the rival Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game 30-20.
The 1992 49ers had a unique combination of talent on both offense and defense, with many of the key building blocks who would later win Super Bowl XXIX. The legendary tandem of Steve Young and Jerry Rice stand to give the 1984 defense quite a challenge.
Game Two: (No. 7) 1998 49ers vs. (No. 2) 1989 49ers
While they won fewer games (though only by one) than the 1984 team, the 1989 49ers were far more dominant when it really counted: in the playoffs.
They face a team of aging legends surrounded by talented youngsters on a 1998 squad which represented a critical turning point for the franchise.
The 1989 49ers enter this game boasting the unquestionably greatest performance in the history of the Super Bowl. The 1989 team trounced the Denver Broncos 55-10 to win Super Bowl XXIV. The Super Bowl records of 55 points by one team and a 45 point margin of victory still stand to this day.
The 1989 team was DOMINANT throughout the playoffs, beating the Vikings, Rams, and Broncos by a combined score of 126-26. This followed a regular season where they lost only two games by a combined five points. In many ways this team marked a crossroads for the 49ers, as Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, and Roger Craig all played in their last Super Bowl.
They would give way to Steve Young, Merton Hanks, and Ricky Watters by the time the 49ers appeared in their next Super Bowl.
The 1998 team marked a crossroads of a different, darker variety.
The 1998 team had a formidable offense, putting up 479 points during the regular season while fighting to a 12-4 record in Steve Mariucci’s second season replacing George Seifert as head coach. They had the most susceptible defense of any team in the tournament, however, as they allowed 328 points to opponents.
Steve Young was in his late 30s, trying to remain in the NFL, despite having battled a series of concussions. Jerry Rice was aging but still productive, continuing to put up big numbers while helping to develop up-and-coming TN-Chattanooga product Terrell Owens into an elite NFL WR.
After playoff losses each of the previous three years to the Green Bay Packers, the 1998 49ers broke through in the NFC Wild Card round, beating the Packers on a thrilling 25-yard touchdown catch by Terrell Owens in the closing minute of the game.
The play was dubbed “The Catch II.”
The team’s lack of depth would be revealed the following week, however, as starting running back Garrison Hearst broke his ankle on the first play from scrimmage against Atlanta. The 49ers struggled to 46 yards rushing for the game, losing 20-18.
It would be the last playoff game in the Hall of Fame career of Steve Young. He suffered a career-ending concussion early the following season, sparking the beginning of some dark days for the 49ers franchise.
Game Three: (No. 6) 1981 49ers vs. (No. 3) 1994 49ers
The only matchup to boast two Super Bowl champion contenders, game three pits the 1981 upstart Super Bowl XVI champs against the all-star, all-business Super Bowl XXIX champs.
The 1994 49ers were truly a star-studded cast. Hungry for another title after having lost back-to-back NFC Championships to the hated rival Dallas Cowboys, owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. brought in an impressive array of veteran talent to supplement a key core of home-grown talent.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan led one of the most impressive offenses in the history of the NFL to a staggering 505 points in the regular season (33.5 points per game, by far the most of any team in the tournament).
The offense continued its strong performance through the playoffs, averaging nearly 44 points per game en route to a 49-26 drubbing of the San Diego Chargers to become the first franchise in NFL history to win five Super Bowls.
Steve Young eclipsed Joe Montana’s record of five touchdown passes in a Super Bowl game, tossing six of his own for 325 yards en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. It was validation for Steve Young’s Hall of Fame career, as he finally beat the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game and delivered a Super Bowl title to San Francisco.
The 1981 49ers were as surprising as the 1994 49ers were impressive. The team improved from 6-10 in 1980 to 13-3 in Bill Walsh’s third season as head coach.
Their stats were far from dominant. They gained fewer regular season yards from scrimmage (5,484) than any other team in the tournament and scored fewer regular season points (357) than all but one (1990). While they had three players and a head coach who would become Hall-of-Famers, none were particularly huge names at the time.
Ronnie Lott was just a rookie out of USC, along with his secondary teammates Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright. Dwight Hicks anchored the secondary as the veteran at 25. Joe Montana was in his first full year as an NFL starter and Dwight Clark was just beginning to mature in his third NFL season.
Bill Walsh’s revolutionary “West Coast offense” would finally hit its stride, elevating the 49ers to a new level of play and shocking opposing defenses with a complex and elegant game plan they had literally never seen before.
They beat the New York Giants by 14 in the first round of the playoffs, setting up a rematch with the Tom Landry-led Dallas Cowboys, whom they had embarrassed 45-14 early in the regular season. A tight game was capped by one of the most iconic plays in American pro sports history as Dwight Clark hauled in “The Catch” from Joe Montana.
The 28-27 win over Dallas propelled the 49ers to the Super Bowl and a 26-21 victory over Cincinnati, earning them their first world title. The 1981 team has the distinct disadvantage that nobody will be shocked by the West Coast offense the way their contemporary opponents were. Then again, nobody gave them a chance in 1981 either...
Game Four: (No. 5) 1988 49ers vs. (No. 4) 1990 49ers
By the slimmest of margins (4.0 percent to 3.9 percent) the 1990 49ers come into this game as the favorites over the Super Bowl XXIII champion 1988 49ers. The team that sent Bill Walsh off in high style versus the team that came so close to a three-peat.
The 1990 49ers entered the season as the prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl, coming off back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1988 and 1989. Their offensive production tailed off considerably, despite Joe Montana rebounding from missing three games in 1989 to make 15 starts in the regular season in 1990.
Unlike 1989, where both Montana and Young put up QB ratings in the triple digits, neither passer broke 100 in 1990.
Despite more catches and more yards, Jerry Rice scored four fewer touchdowns in 1990, leading the team with 13. This translated to the lowest regular season point total of any team in the tournament, at just 353.
Their defense was stellar, however, surrendering just 239 points in the regular season (third best in the tournament) and helped carry the team to a 14-2 regular season record.
Despite allowing over 400 yards of offense to the Washington Redskins in the first round of the playoffs, the 1990 49ers emerged victorious, 28-10. This set up a showdown against Bill Parcells and the Giants for the right to play in Super Bowl XXV and a chance for the 49ers to become the first team to three-peat as Super Bowl champions.
In a game that featured just one touchdown (a 61-yard scamper by John Taylor), the 49ers had the ball and the lead in the fourth quarter, when a Roger Craig fumble set up a last-minute game-winning field goal to sink the 49ers three-peat hopes 15-13 and send the Giants to the Super Bowl instead.
The 1988 49ers setup the front end of the would-be three-peat, winning Super Bowl XXIII over the Cincinnati Bengals in dramatic fashion. But it was not easy.
In Bill Walsh’s final season as an NFL head coach, his team put up the smallest regular season point differential of any team in the tournament, outscoring their opponents by just a combined 75 points, 369-294.
The 1988 team was held under 6,000 yards from scrimmage at 5,900 and Joe Montana went just 8-5 in 13 regular season starts, posting a passer rating of just 87.9. The team compiled by far the worst regular season record of any in the tournament, going just 10-6.
They seemed to hit their stride in the playoffs, though, at least until the Super Bowl.
The 1988 49ers waltzed past the Minnesota Vikings in the first round 34-9 and went into Soldier Field in sub-freezing conditions with wind chill down to -26 F° and pummeled the Bears 28-3. They scored a touchdown in every quarter and racked up 406 yards from scrimmage, earning them a berth in their third Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXIII was perhaps the most exciting of all-time. In a battle between Walsh and his former protégé—Bengals head coach Sam Wyche—the 49ers’ scoring prowess disappeared. A late Bengals field goal set up an ending for the ages.
Joe Montana broke the ice of starting a 92-yard drive with 3:10 to play by pointing out comedian John Candy in the far end zone stands.
Then he crafted a drive capped by a John Taylor touchdown which kept the 49ers perfect in the Super Bowl. Jerry Rice would earn Super Bowl MVP honors for his record-setting 11 receptions and 215 yards.
It was the only Super Bowl in which Joe Montana played where he was not named MVP.
With a comeback like that under their belts, it is difficult to ever count the 1988 squad out.