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Rise to the top: How the 49ers marched to a historic NFL turnaround

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One year ago, the San Francisco 49ers had just wrapped up yet another abysmal season under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Scot Tucker/SFBay San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan looks up at the clock in overtime as the Seattle Seahawks face the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif, on Sunday, December 16, 2018. (Scot Tucker/SFBay.ca)

After a somewhat promising end to the 2017 campaign, the 49ers failed to live up to the hype, delivering a disappointing 4-12 season in 2018. After losing franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn-ACL in Week 3, the 49ers were deflated, sputtering to irrelevancy near the bottom of the NFC.

* * *

Fast forward to December 30, 2019, and the 49ers had just capped one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NFL history.

Using the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, the 49ers made a franchise-altering move, drafting defensive end Nick Bosa, followed by wide receiver Deebo Samuel in the second round. For a team whose motto was “brick-by-brick,” drafting Bosa and Samuel were the final bricks in the structure that was a championship-caliber roster.

A healthy Garoppolo paired with a ferocious defensive line could only mean good things for a 49ers team desperate for a winning season. Beginning the 2019 campaign with uncertainty, the 49ers embraced their “pretenders” label and disproved doubters with a determined march to the NFC top seed.

Week 1: Tampa Bay

Heading into Week 1, there was plenty of nervous excitement throughout the organization. At the beginning of training camp, the 49ers suffered injuries to Dee Ford and Bosa, their two premiere pass rushers, causing both to miss preseason, and almost into Week 1. Both ended up playing, as the 49ers defense made its first statement of the season.

Intercepting Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston three times, including two pick-sixes, the 49ers routed the Bucs on their way to an impressive 31-17 win to open the season.

Week 2: Cincinnati

After their big win over the Bucs, the 49ers (1-0) stayed on the East Coast between their Week 1 and Week 2 games. Setting up camp in Youngstown, Ohio, the 49ers prepared for a matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals (0-1).

The game plan for the 49ers at the beginning of the season was to gash opposing defenses on the ground while playing lock-down defense. Week 2, the 49ers ran the ball 42 times for a combined 259 yards, at a clip of 6.2 yards per rush. Their monster game on the ground, combined with Garoppolo’s 17-of-25, 296 yards, 3 TD game allowed the 49ers to throttle the Bengals at home. Winning 41-17, the 49ers offense had its coming-out party.

After the game, the 49ers received some bad news. Veteran left tackle Joe Staley suffered a broken fibula, an injury that would keep him out until Week 10.

Week 3: Pittsburgh

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

Returning home for their first game of the season at Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers (2-0) were flying high after two blowout road wins. With Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for the season, the 49ers defense faced off against backup quarterback Mason Rudolph.

With the excitement, the 49ers had generated throughout the first two games, this was their first letdown game, at least on offense. Turning the ball over five times, the 49ers offense should have sunk their chances for a 3-0 start to the season. Garoppolo (23-of-32, 277, 1 TD, 2 INT, 1 fumble) was bad, accounting for three of the teams’ five turnovers.

The 49ers defense forced two Steelers turnovers and held Rudolph (14-of-27, 174 yards, 2 TD’s, 1 INT) and the Steelers offense to 20 points despite the 49ers offense coughing the ball up every chance they got. In terms of “bend-don’t-break,” the 49ers certainly bent, but somehow held on to secure the win. That would be a theme throughout the season.

After a hot start to a bounce-back season, 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon suffered a foot injury. Replaced by backup corner Emmanuel Moseley, Witherspoon would eventually retain his starting role in Week 13.

Week 4: An early bye week

Nobody in the 49ers organization was thrilled about a Week 4 bye. After a hot 3-0 start to the season, the 49ers would have preferred a later bye but embraced the early rest before 13 straight weeks without a break.

The bye week was less-than-ideal for the long haul, but it did allow for some key players, such as Tevin Coleman to rest up ahead of a prime time matchup with the Cleveland Browns.

Week 5: Cleveland

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

Before the season, this matchup was looked at as one of the more exciting games on the prime time schedule. America’s Preseason Darling the Cleveland Browns (2-2) were a popular playoff, and even Super Bowl, pick for many around the league. Off to an inconsistent start, the Browns traveled to Santa Clara only to be humiliated on Monday Night Football at the hands of the 49ers (3-0).

This was the Nick Bosa arrival game. The former Ohio State Buckeye faced off against the Heisman-winning, Oaklahoma Sooner Baker Mayfield. A rivalry that very few, including myself, knew about before the game, would erupt into a one-sided affair Monday night. Bosa was all over Mayfield (2 sacks, 5 QB hits, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 INT) en route to a 31-3 49ers beatdown of Cleveland.

Oh, and it should be mentioned that the 49ers ran for 275 yards on the ground, which kind of got overlooked.

After losing Staley earlier in the season, the 49ers lost right tackle Mike McGlinchey after this win. Without both starting tackles, the 49ers offensive line got help from Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill, who filled in admirably for the two injured tackles.

Week 6: Los Angeles

At this point in the season, the 49ers (4-0) were flying high after their undefeated start. There were still plenty of doubters, which was understandable. Four games against weak opponents is not a large sample size.

Week 6 the 49ers traveled to Los Angeles to face the 2018 NFC Champion Rams (3-2). The argument that “the 49ers haven’t played anybody yet!” would almost cease to exist after this game.

The Rams started with a touchdown on their very first drive. Rams head coach Sean McVay made the 49ers defense look silly on their opening drive, only to be shut down the rest of the game. The 49ers defense absolutely dominated Jared Goff (13-of-24, 78 yards, 0 TD’s) and the Rams offense, beating them 20-7 at the L.A. Coliseum.

Week 7: Washington

This game was kind of a snooze fest. A wet and sloppy matchup against the Washington Redskins (1-5) was highlighted by hilarious images of 49ers (5-0) players slipping and sliding around the monsoon-soaked FedEx Field.

Pitching their only shutout of the season, the 49ers defense took care of business against a bad Redskins team, winning 9-0. Coming into Week 7, the game plan was clear for both teams: run the ball. A combined 65 rushing attempts between the two teams led to a muddy, old-school football game. The 49ers improved to 6-0.

Week 8: Carolina

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

Returning home after two weeks on the road, the 49ers (6-0) welcomed to Santa Clara the Carolina Panthers (4-2). What was believed to be a good game between two stout defenses turned out to be a slaughtering of Kyle Allen and the Panthers.

Days before this game, the 49ers made a big splash before the trade deadline. Trading for Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the 49ers offense got a new weapon and No. 1 receiver. This Sanders trade would be huge down the stretch for the 49ers.

The 49ers as a team rushed for over 200 yards once more, combining for 232 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Tevin Coleman had a breakout game, rushing for 105 yards and 3 TDs.

Coming into this game, Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen had not thrown one interception in his short career. The 49ers changed that, intercepting Allen three times.

An all-out 51-13 beat-down of the Panthers propelled the 49ers to a 7-0 start.

Week 9: Arizona

Nick Bosa and Kyler Murray, the first two picks in the 2019 NFL Draft faced off for the first time. The stingy Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1) welcomed the 49ers (7-0) for a Thursday night, Halloween matchup in the desert.

This was (at the time) Jimmy Garoppolo’s best game of his career. Throwing for 317 yards and 4 touchdowns, the 49ers game plan allowed for Garoppolo to air it out, and air it out he did.

This was also the game that George Kittle suffered knee and ankle injuries, which kept him out for two weeks. Kittle injuries would prove costly for the 49ers, as the offense basically runs through Kittle.

In addition to Kittle, the 49ers were hit with another significant injury. Star linebacker Kwon Alexander suffered a torn pec in this game, which ended his season.

Murray and the Cardinals made things interesting towards the end of the game, nearly coming back and upsetting the 49ers. Murray gave the 49ers headaches and showed that he will be a pest for NFC West defenses for years to come.

Week 10: Seattle

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

What an unbelievable game this would turn out to be. A heartbreaking loss for the 49ers after what was the game of the year at the time. The Seattle Seahawks (7-2) came into Levi’s Stadium on a Monday night to hand the 49ers (8-0) their first loss of the season, in overtime.

Without George Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders and kicker Robbie Gould, the 49ers lost a tough one, a game they should have won, and probably would have won if healthier.

A back-and-forth game ended in regulation with a tie, forcing an epic overtime battle. With Gould out, the 49ers picked up rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin, who had tied the game at the end of regulation, only to miss the game-winning kick in overtime. There were a lot of “what-if’s” in this game. What if George Kittle had played? What if Emmanuel Sanders had played? What if the 49ers did not have to rely on an unproven, rookie kicker? If just one of those three players had played, the result may have been different.

The 49ers were left heartbroken on national television that Monday night. They learned a lot about themselves after this game and used it as a learning experience moving forward.

If the loss wasn’t already bad, the 49ers received more unfortunate injury news. Staley, who returned for this matchup against Seattle, suffered a finger injury that would require surgery, sidelining him for a couple more weeks. In addition to Staley, defensive lineman Ronald Blair suffered a torn-ACL, ending his stellar season. Injuries were beginning to pile up for the 49ers, and at the wrong time.

Week 11: Arizona

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

Two weeks after their Halloween showdown with the Cardinals (3-6-1), the 49ers (8-1) welcomed the Cardinals to Levi’s Stadium.

The box score will show a 36-26 victory for the 49ers, but it was a much closer game than that. The Cardinals jumped out to an early two-touchdown lead over the 49ers, as Garoppolo and the offense struggled to get going without Kittle.

Despite throwing two interceptions, Garoppolo would put together another dominant game against the Cardinals, throwing for 424 yards and four touchdowns. Rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel stepped up big time, recording 8 catches for 134 yards.

After battling knee tendinitis early in the season, 49ers pass-rusher Dee Ford suffered a hamstring injury in this game. The injury sidelined him for the following two games.

Week 12: Green Bay

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

Probably the most impressive 49ers (9-1) win of the season, was their thumping of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (8-2) in Week 12.

This game finally silenced any remaining 49ers doubters. An all-around dominant performance against a Hall of Fame quarterback and his championship-caliber team spoke volumes as to how good this 49ers team really was.

The 49ers defensive line dominated after having to chase down mobile quarterbacks the previous three weeks. However, this Week 12 matchup against the Packers would be the last game of the season where the 49ers defense would record three or more sacks.

Week 13: Baltimore

The 49ers (10-1) faced multiple Super Bowl-caliber teams this season, but none better than the Baltimore Ravens (9-2) in Week 13. Baltimore was the second of three teams that the 49ers were scheduled to face in what would be the most difficult three-game, regular-season stretch in NFL history.

At this pint in the season, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had taken over the MVP conversation. The elusive dual-threat quarterback was a major problem for just about every team in the league, and nobody had a plan for stopping him, even a defense as good as the 49ers.

Jackson and the Ravens handed the 49ers their second loss of the season on a last-second field goal from kicker Justin Tucker. Just like the Week 7 game in Washington, both the 49ers and their opponent focused on running the ball, due to poor weather conditions.

The 49ers defense played well in this game. They held Jackson (14-of-23, 105 yards, 1 TD) and the Ravens to only 20 points. The difference? Jackson killed the 49ers on the ground, rushing for over 100 yards.

In this game, 49ers star safety Jaquiski Tartt suffered a rib injury that would sideline him the rest of the season. Tartt had been a very underrated part of the 49ers defense, and his replacement Marcell Harris continued to be targeted over and over throughout the final four weeks. The 49ers’ struggles on defense to close out the season was due (in some part) to Tartt’s absence over the middle of the field.

Week 14: New Orleans

This was easily my favorite game of the year. An offensive explosion at the Super Dome was highlighted by plenty of big plays, creative play-calling, and a play by George Kittle that could rival the famous Marshawn Lynch “Beast Quake.”

The 49ers (10-2) defense was torched early on by Drew Brees and the Saints (10-2). The defense that had been so good all season long was nowhere to be found in this game. Down multiple scores early, the 49ers had to get creative, as Kyle Shanahan opened up his playbook, getting aggressive with some trick plays.

Garoppolo (26-of-35, 349 yards, 4 TD’s, 1 INT) was phenomenal in this game, but Brees (29-of-40, 349 yards, 6 total TD’s) was even better. An offensive shootout ended with Garoppolo putting together one of, if not the most clutch drive of his career. With a lot of help from Kittle of course.

After injuring his hamstring in Week 11, Dee Ford re-aggravated his hamstring injury in this game, which would sideline him the rest of the 2019 regular season. In addition to Ford, 49ers center Weston Richburg suffered a torn patella tendon, also ending his 2019 season.

This is where the 49ers depth of the defensive line began to thin out. Run-stopping nose tackle D.J. Jones suffered a high ankle sprain in this game, ending his season. A big blow to the 49ers defense, especially defending against the run.

Week 15: Atlanta

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

You could see it coming miles away: the trap game. After their thrilling win over the Saints, the 49ers (11-2) returned home to face the underachieving Atlanta Falcons (4-9).

An inconsistent day on offense coupled with a struggling 49ers secondary allowed Atlanta to hang around in this game, and ultimately pull ahead in the final seconds.

Without safety Jaquiski Tartt and cornerback Richard Sherman, the 49ers secondary was torched by one of the best receivers in the league, Julio Jones (13 receptions, 134 yards, 2 TDs).

The unbelievable goal-line touchdown from Ryan to Jones to seal a Falcons victory was one of the most bizarre plays the 49ers had been apart of, a spooky precursor to the ending of their Week 17 showdown in Seattle.

Week 16: Los Angeles

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

At this point in the season, the 49ers were already looking ahead to Week 17 in Seattle. The outcome for this game would not matter in regards to who would win the NFC West, but it mattered for seeding purposes if the 49ers were able to beat Seattle the following week.

This was another game where the 49ers defense struggled without Tartt and Ford. Rams head coach Sean McVay designed plenty of bootlegs for Jared Goff, who was able to escape pressure all evening against a worn-out 49ers defensive line.

The 49ers found themselves in a hole early but came back in the second quarter. Towards the end of a tied 31-31 game in the 4th quarter, Garoppolo and the 49ers offense got one last crack at a game-winning drive. The infamous drive featured not one, but two 3rd-and-15’s, and was capped off by a Robbie Gould game-winning field goal. The 49ers would not be the No. 1 seed today if it weren’t for this narrow victory versus the Rams.

Week 17: Seattle

As if the 49ers (12-3) had not played enough gut-wrenching, nauseating, drama-filled games this season, they saved the most stressful game for last. You know … with everything on the line. A trip to Seattle to face the Seahawks (11-4), for the division, a first-round bye, and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

This game was all 49ers early on. Offense, defense, special teams, play-calling, the 49ers were putting on a clinic in Seattle. Then, of course, Russell Wilson started to do Russell Wilson things.

Leading 13-0 at halftime, the 49ers were starting to feel good about their chances of walking away with the division crown. Wilson and the Seahawks completely turned things around in the second half. At one point Seattle’s offense converted seven-straight third-down attempts as they quickly climbed back into this game.

The return of Marshawn Lynch (12 carries, 34 yards, 1 TD) and the fan-service that came with it was pretty cool. “Beast Mode” even scored a touchdown towards the end of the game to allow the Seahawks to inch even closer.

Even with the 49ers leading late in the game with a chance to put it away, everyone knew that Wilson would get one last shot at being the hero, and the hero he almost was. With about three minutes left in the game, Seattle marched down the field with ease as they looked to score and steal one from the 49ers.

Inside the red zone, Seattle had eight scoring attempts inside the 49ers 12-yard line. A conversion on 4th-and-10 with 42 seconds left in the game gave Seattle the ball at the 49ers 1-yard line, and out came Lynch to try and win the game for the Seahawks. That was until Pete Carroll, Wilson and the Seahawks fell victim to their own clock mismanagement, causing a delay-of-game penalty to back them up five yards.

At one point Seattle was one yard away from winning, and now they were tasked with scoring from five yards away, and off the field ran Lynch. Another 4th down try for the Seahawks would leave Century Link Field and the rest of America stunned. A four-yard pass from Wilson to tight end Jacob Hollister came mere inches short of a Seattle game-winning touchdown. The hero that saved the 49ers season? Rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw.

An unbelievable end to an unbelievable game and season. And that was how the west was won.

Division champs, No. 1 seed and a chance to bring the Lombardi trophy back to the Bay Area

As of right now, the 49ers are enjoying a much-needed and much-deserved bye week after their thrilling win in Seattle.

The 49ers will play in the divisional round at home on January 11 against Minnesota, after the Vikings upset NFC South champs New Orleans 26-20 in overtime to climb into the second round.

After 13-straight games without a bye week, the week off could not have come at a better time. Both Jaquiski Tartt and Dee Ford are on the mend and should be back for the 49ers’ first playoff game at Levi’s Stadium.

After years of irrelevancy, multiple head coaching changes, a front office, and roster overhaul, the San Francisco 49ers are back and their quest for a sixth Super Bowl trophy is underway.

Taylor Wirth

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