There are 2 ways to view the San Francisco 49ers crotch kick of a defeat in the NFC championship game. The first and seemingly most popular is to be overcome with grief. The 49ers were in an overtime period to decide who would go to the super bowl and blew their opportunity thanks to a anemic offense and the absolute inability of their backup punt returner to understand the very basic premise of returning punts. The other side of the sadness coin would be optimism. The 49ers had a unexpectedly outstanding season. After winning 6 games last season they roared to 14 wins this year. Along the way they provided many a thrilling moment, including one of the most spectacular playoff wins in the history of a franchise whose fans have a memory bank loaded with unforgettable post season victories. In the end, both views of the 2011-2012 49ers season would be fairly accurate.
After losing 10 games in 2010 and hiring a new coach, the NFC Championship game seemed to be about the farthest thing from 49er fans minds when the 2011 season began. The Niners franchise underwent a complete transformation despite the odds being completely stacked against them. A new coach, a new offense to learn, a bevy of new players and an ultra abbreviated training camp did not indicate success was on the horizon. Despite all these obstacles, prosperity would finally return to San Francisco. Led by possibly the NFL’s best defense, the Niners chalked up their most victories since the 1997 season. The pieces of a dominating defense seemed to have been in place for a while, yet were never fully realized until this season under the guidance of Lord Vic Fangio. The 14 games this year were won largely on the broad shoulders of the defense. Reaching the NFC championship game is a great accomplishment for any franchise, but especially for a team that hadn’t had a winning season in almost a decade. This team had zero expectations at the beginning of the year and can look back with pride on an amazing 2011 season.
That being said, the 49ers were so unbelievably close to playing in the Super Bowl, most people involved with the team could almost taste it, until their hearts were ripped out in an unbelievably cruel fashion. The 49ers hadn’t hosted a NFC championship game in 14 years and I’m not sure when the opportunity might present itself again. The fact that the loss came in overtime is even more exasperating. The defense played an outstanding game overall, but was particularly suffocating in the second half and overtime. The defense played so well in fact that they forced overtime despite the offense doing next to nothing for most of the game. There were some questionable coaching decisions. Getting away from the run late in the game despite averaging over 5 yards a carry for the game killed any momentum. The offense never got the wide receiver’s involved enough in the action, never calling a bubble screen or trying any creative ways to get Michael Crabtree some touches. One particular series that stands out is Anthony Dixon getting back to back carries early in the 4th quarter. To have your third string running back who had a grand total of 3 carries in the entire post season in the championship game on a crucial third down and one in your opponents territory is inconceivable. The breaks also definitely did not go the Niners way. A furious pass rush forced Eli Manning into several bad throws but an interception could not be had. Manning was under intense pressure, he threw off his back foot, he had his arm hit as he released, but the ball always fell to the turf. The big play seem to finally come at the 2 minute warning when Dashon Goldson recovered Ahmad Brashaw’s “fumble”. Say what you want about his forward progress being stopped, but I can’t imagine the ref blowing the play dead had Bradshaw rolled off of the Niner defender and continued upfield without his knee touching the ground. The Niners defense was unsurpassed in their abilities to force turnovers all season, but despite a super human effort, could not force one in the biggest game of the year.
The 2011 season was a runaway success. There are so many positives to take away from this year. A top notch defense that can carry an entire team. The breakout season of Alex Smith, finally the quarterback of a winning team. The arrival of the NFL’s next great head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Yet, in the back of everyone’s heads, the NFC championship game will bother 49ers fans for all eternity. To come that close and not move on is a hard thing to forget. The “Kyle Williams game” will go down in 49er infamy, right along with the Roger Craig fumble. But the future is as bright as it’s been in a long time.