ARLINGTON, TX — It is almost too fitting that the 49ers are one of the NFL’s eight remaining teams. They were rightfully billed as an NFC Championship contender with an outside view to make the Super Bowl before this season began.
All the talent is plainly obvious, as is the coaching talent. The scheme has the players and veteran backbone to support it.
And despite all that obviousness, this has been a tormenting path. Not because it needed to be, but because that’s just who the 49ers are.
We should have known that from the conclusion of the season opener, when the Jared Goff-led Detroit Lions closed a 24-point gap to 8 points in the span of less than six minutes, nearly sending the game to overtime via a Deebo Samuel fumble, and an onside kick that smacked George Kittle in the face.
This team is weird. This season has been weird. At this point, they’re owning their weirdness. In a way that can’t adequately be explained, they seem to feed off the crackpot nature of their success.
Any game they should win comfortably, it seems Garoppolo is there to throw it away, or get as close as possible without doing so. Early in the year, the secondary shepherded some of that load by regularly tackling receivers before they had the ball.
And then, when there is quite literally no margin for error, they do exactly enough to get it done. It’s not every game, but it’s been exactly enough to reach this point, of heading to Green Bay for the Divisional Round.
The 49ers are, in essence, this unhinged child, from the 2014 movie “The Babadook.” They are perpetually screaming in a car as we all collectively ask, “Why can’t you just be normal?” only for the 49ers to scream even louder and more incoherently.
This team’s strength is its resiliency, and because they have won and lost in such a variety of ways, there is no circumstance which seems too much to overcome.
After six games, this team had lost four-straight, including to a Seahawks team which was destined for a season of ignominy.
Of course, Jimmy Garoppolo sustained a surprise calf injury against Seattle after an ugly first half, prompting Trey Lance to debut.
Then Lance was run into the ground by Kyle Shanahan, carrying the ball 16 times including on a stunning number of draws and inside runs en route to a knee sprain. Shanahan simultaneously maintained — when prompted as to why Lance’s playing time was limited to nonexistent — in the face of the obvious irony, that you could not just use a quarterback as a running back.
That four-game skid which sent them to 2-4 was punctuated by Garoppolo’s worst work, in a hilariously poor, two-interception, rain-soaked performance at home against the Indianapolis Colts. It was also the last we would see of Dee Ford.
Then the 49ers reawakened against the Bears. With Javon Kinlaw’s season already concluded, Arik Armstead transitioned inside full time and the defensive line, at that point, started to evolve into the elite unit it was supposed to be.
But it was just the Bears. And a week later, they lost to a Colt McCoy-led, and Deandre Hopkins-, J.J. Watt- and Maxx Williams-less Arizona Cardinals team by 14 points.
There were so many times this team seemed beat, and yet, they’ve stuck around. This team knows how dominant they should be, how talented they are, and how they’ve continually flashed but not sustained those moments of brilliance.
And in that Week 10 game against the Rams, they found life. The Rams, still an elite team, are the 49ers’ Popeye spinach. When they’re beaten down, at their worst, they crack a can open of Rams whoopass and suddenly, they find themselves right as rain.
There was, of course, another ridiculous loss to Seattle that followed a few weeks later, and a game they had to win twice against the Bengals in overtime.
And right as it all seemed to be clicking, Garoppolo threw away the game against the Titans, and the defense crumbled like Nature Valley bar against the just-returned A.J. Brown.
Of course, it actually turned out it was not Garoppolo’s fault. He suffered a serious thumb injury, which he said he thought was a bad jam and kept on the down low.
The reports on the severity of his injury were of course, not normal, with the tone coming from Kyle Shanahan sounding decidedly different than the reports of national reporters. He still has refused to say Garoppolo definitely needs offseason surgery despite NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reporting that Garoppolo will, in fact, need offseason surgery.
It seemed like there was no way Garoppolo would make it back by season’s end, saying at one point “fuck–, it hurts” and describing his injury as feeling like the webbing of his hand was tearing.
And then all of a sudden, after doing his best vanishing act against Los Angeles, he mounted a comeback which was nearing statistical impossibility against a Sean McVay team which had never blown a halftime lead, let alone a 17-3 halftime lead.
But here’s the thing about Garoppolo; he is essentially a cockroach, and that’s in the most glowing sense possible. The urge to simply get rid of him is palpable, but he lingers.
As he and the 49ers have seemed on their deathbed so many times this season, he — not unlike a mummy — awakens from his stupor, and might just fool you into believing, if only for a moment, that he’s secretly an elite quarterback.
Sunday night was sort of the inverse of that.
Garoppolo was playing a near-flawless game. But the moment that thought creeps in, it’s like Garoppolo feels it. He needs there to be drama. He hates that there could actually be peace. An easy win sickens him. At least, that’s how it seems.
With the 49ers up 23-7 in the third quarter and Brandon Aiyuk as open as a receiver gets, he opted for chaos over closure. He airmailed the ball over Aiyuk.
You see Garoppolo, as clear as day, yelling to himself — or perhaps Aiyuk and himself, with broadcaster Tony Romo suggesting Aiyuk was expected to continue to run upfield — “God damnit!”
One can only suppose that Garoppolo was not alone in that reaction.
A play in six photos:
And then Garoppolo seemed to make an extraordinary play. He avoided pressure — which he did very well on Sunday — and escaped the pocket. But he hesitated to throw the ball, and once he did throw, he sailed it yet again, getting picked off and ensuring that Dallas had a legitimate chance to win the game.
Of course. The 49ers couldn’t just churn the clock, maybe tack on another field goal and mostly coast to a win. They required chaos.
If you wanted deeper analysis about today’s game, we have that here. And it played out, aside from the drama, as expected. San Francisco was very clearly the better team entering this game.
They have an ingenuitive, physically imposing run game, along with skill position players who are all elite and with unique skillsets. The defensive line is a run-stuffing, offensive-line enveloping force backed up by a speedy linebacker corps, a corner back group which is suddenly maybe OK and a pair of very sound, reliable safeties. San Francisco should have won this game and been the favorites.
The real question was whether Garoppolo would go rogue. He waited until it was the most entertaining opportunity to do so.
As George Kittle said after the game, it’s entertaining.
“That was wild. Lots of ups and downs, lots of unknowns,” Kittle said. “I think the Niners made for great TV.”
Like Kittle, even when you know it’s probably going to become a patently absurd game, it manages to remain as surprising every time. Kittle was asked, “Does it ever get easier?”
“No, gosh no. That was awful,” Kittle said. “Winning is always awesome no matter how you do it. Obviously we have things that we have to learn from, because we almost let that one get away from us. But our team stepped up when it needed to step up and we got the win.”
That always seems to be the case with this team. Whatever the cause, they find themselves in an unnecessarily perilous situation, only to succeed when it matters the most.
Did they need the Cowboys to commit 14 penalties for 89 yards and forget how the concept of time works? Sure. But that’s exceedingly on brand for this team, and the tornado of nonsense they continue to suck us all up into.
It’s unlikely this tornado ends in a successful Super Bowl run, but if you’re expecting logical things to come from this team, you’ve missed the point.
At the very least, Kittle is right. The 49ers certainly make for entertaining TV, and there is little sign that’s going to change.