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Making sense of the 49ers’ NFC championship nightmare



© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Hollow. That’s how Sunday felt.

We watch football to be entertained, to feel something. We wrap ourselves in the storylines, the history, the pomp and circumstance, hoping to be amazed over the course of a three-hour slate.

But when there is a promise of greatness like there was on Sunday, a titanic clash between the two behemoths of the NFC in a fairly-matched contest… and that is stolen, what are we left with?

Emptiness. At least for the moment.

Sunday was a nihilist’s take on Frankenstein’s monster.

It was a trudging experiment in misanthropy.

What could football be if we removed all that made it mean something? That question was answered through a uniquely gut-punching array of injuries, errors and heavy-handed officiating.

The most damning component of Sunday’s result is that it gave us no answers.

We were deprived of something concrete. Now, once again, we must live in a space of hypotheticals. It is that familiar, sinister place that has long haunted Kyle Shanahan’s career: a barren landscape of what-ifs and maybes.

We were promised that by the end of Sunday, we would know who the best team in the NFC was. We would find out if Shanahan’s team, with its third quarterback, on an absurd trajectory of indefatigable ascension, would continue to ride it to a Super Bowl berth.

We don’t have that answer. Purdy’s elbow injury stole that from us. Josh Johnson’s fumble and concussion ensured there wasn’t even a theoretical hope of salvaging the wreck.

The result also takes away from the Eagles. That is unfair to a team that might win the Super Bowl, and would deserve to win it.

They have to deal with the silly stigma of having beaten a team with Daniel Jones at quarterback, and one which ran out of quarterbacks. It is, objectively, one of the easiest paths to the Super Bowl in recent memory, and cheapens the unquestionably dominant season they had.

I picked Philadelphia to win Sunday. They played well. But the 49ers imploded like a neutron star. This was no competition.

But it’s not all bleak. At least, it feels that way because there was such a unique substance behind this team. There was a legitimacy no one expected.

Kyle Shanahan, damned — eternally it seems — to a head coaching tenure defined by quarterbacking catastrophes, seemed to have found his way out of the desert.

The 49ers overcame the loss of Trey Lance. Jimmy Garoppolo, who was supposed to be anywhere else before this season, stuck around and eventually righted the ship. But down he went, in the midst of the best season of his career.

And there was Brock Purdy. Miraculously, nonsensically, perhaps the best option all along.

We all assumed the season was over with Garoppolo. Maybe the playoffs would be possible, but certainly not a serious playoff run.

Instead, eight-straight wins under Purdy, and 12-straight followed. A chance for a 13th-straight win was revoked unceremoniously.

“He’s the reason we even got to this game,” said Fred Warner. “When Jimmy went down against the Dolphins, we didn’t know what our season was going to be. He came in and did a heck of a job. He’s the reason we’re here right now.”

With Purdy, it seemed like Shanahan was as aggressive and free as he’d ever been. Christian McCaffrey’s addition made this offense impossible to shut down over the course of 60 minutes.

Ridiculous as their path was, they deserved to be there. That’s part of why this is so hard to rationalize. They never got a chance. Shanahan nearly got choked up when asked how it compares to his other playoff losses with the 49ers.

“This one was harder,” Shanahan said. “This one was harder. This one was a lot harder, I thought.”

It begs the question, how does Shanahan persevere through this near-trips to the mountaintop?

There’s no questioning his commitment to his craft, and the pay is excellent, but the toll it must take to come so close, and fall short in repeated, excruciating fashion, makes you wonder how he continues to put himself through this every year.

It’s one thing to be hopeless. But to feel rightly optimistic and be bludgeoned time and time again, often by forces outside of your control, is gutting.

That said, there’s plenty for Shanahan and co. to look forward to.

There are offseason decisions to be made, but regardless of how it all plays out, the 49ers will continue to have an extraordinarily talented roster, and have enough at the quarterback position to remain highly competitive.

But to have a legitimate chance at a Super Bowl, and combust so abruptly, it begs sitting in the present, if just for a moment.

As grotesque and unjust as Sunday was, it is only so upsetting because of the nonsensical path cut to arrive here.

There are more reasons to feel fury than appreciation in this moment. Pinnacles are ever-fleeting, and when chances to reach them go by the wayside, they can feel all the more impossible to reach.

But this team turned a 3-4 start into an 12-game winning streak, most of which came with the final pick of the NFL Draft at the helm.

The fact that we’re all disappointed is an outrageous reflection of how impressive and real that run was. That it was as realistic for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl with Brock Purdy at quarterback as any other team — two of whom had MVP candidates, and the other has Joe Burrow — is laughable.

Literally laughable, in the most positive sense possible. They could have won the Super Bowl with Brock Purdy! And we were all deprived the knowledge, at least for the moment, of knowing whether it was as real as it felt.

Don’t ignore that feeling, but recognize that it comes from a place of positivity. This was a harsh fate for a team that had re-established itself as a domineering force defined by smothering defense and a skill-glutted offense.

The what-ifs will linger, but this could have been a waste of a season. It was not.

The 49ers may have found their quarterback of the future. There will be rampant speculation regarding the team’s quarterback position, and the continued lack of credence pundits will treat Purdy with, despite what the tape shows, will not abate because of his draft stock. It will only worsen with a reported UCL injury, a legitimate concern.

That is all for tomorrow’s news cycle.

This moment requires recognition that the 49ers had one of most impressive seasons in the NFL. They did not fail because of merit, but because of the cruelty so often levied by fate (and because they blocked Haason Reddick with Tyler Kroft).