SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Finally, we can definitively cross off the comeback anxieties dogging the San Francisco 49ers. Whether it’s the last drive of a playoff game, or the entire second half, Sunday’s furious rally to secure a 34-31 NFC championship win over the Detroit Lions should lay some doubts to rest.
That's good considering the next task at hand is arguably the steepest this 49ers franchise has faced under head coach Kyle Shanahan: Stopping Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs from securing the NFL’s first post-New England Patriots dynasty.
It’s a somewhat symmetrical assignment, given that the 49ers fell victim to Mahomes in his first championship appearance, suffering a 31-20 nightmare loss in Super Bowl LIV that saw San Francisco blow a 10-point fourth quarter lead. That comeback secured Mahomes’ first ring of his career, launching him on a Tom Brady-esque trajectory that has featured six straight AFC title game appearances and now four Super Bowls in that same span. Arguably none of those games has carried as much weight for Kansas City than this one, given that it offers the Chiefs an opportunity to be the first franchise since New England to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003/2004 seasons. Simply put, it’s a dynasty stamp opportunity.
In the parlance of how the NFL views its eras, the Chiefs already represent that kind of franchise. But if they win a Super Bowl on Feb. 11 — which would be three since 2020 — any dynasty deniers at that point risk being boxed up with the rest of the league’s unyielding trolls and shot into the sun. While preventing that kind of history wasn’t on the 49ers’ mind Sunday night, the hurdle wasn’t hard to grasp.
“What a challenge,” 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy said of the matchup. “You’ve got Mahomes and what he does and their team — they’re special, man. They’re winners. They’ve proven that over however many years he’s been there. So for us to be able to go back and play them is going to be sweet. It’s going to be special for all of us. I wasn’t here obviously in [the 2019 season's loss], but you can just tell the guys that have been here, for anybody, it’ll be special to play these guys.”
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan said he didn’t see any of the Chiefs’ 17-10 AFC title game win over the Baltimore Ravens, instead getting the news just prior to the 49ers taking the field against the Lions.
“They’re a hell of a team,” Shanahan said. “They’ve got a hell of a coach, hell of a quarterback, hell of a defense. I haven’t gotten to see them much this year, just because we haven’t had a lot of crossover tape. But I already have a pretty good idea how it’s going to look. They’ve been doing it for a while. Since we met them in [2019 season's Super Bowl], it seems like they’ve been there every year since. We’ve been trying really hard to get back to that moment.”
Now the 49ers have climbed back, albeit with a vastly different roster than the one that faced Mahomes and Reid in that Super Bowl. Over the course of the season, San Francisco has rostered 11 players who were also on their 2019 team, including six stars: wideout Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, defensive end Nick Bosa, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, and linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. All-Pro fullback Kyle Juszczyk was also part of the 2019 team.
The difference now for the 49ers? Experience. All of those players were in the early stages of their NFL careers, and Shanahan was in only his third season as a head coach. San Francisco’s offense was also a far less explosive unit, lacking the playmaking depth of running back Christian McCaffrey, wideout Brandon Aiyuk and even quarterback Brock Purdy, not to mention anchor offensive tackle Trent Williams. It also didn’t have the massive amount of assets invested in the front end of the defense, which now includes a rotation of Chase Young and Randy Gregory in pass-rushing packages, as well as defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.
But as much talent and experience as the 49ers have gained since 2019, arguably the biggest asset San Francisco brings to the table against the Chiefs — beyond the considerable running threat of McCaffrey — is the microwaved development of Purdy, who has suddenly gotten massive postseason moments under his belt. Not only did he survive through a terrible weather-hindered performance against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC's divisional round, he added Sunday’s second-half gem against the Lions on top of it. It was a performance that saw Purdy make a handful of key throws and devastating runs that knocked Detroit’s defense off its axis and helped engineer a 27-0 run that ultimately buried the Lions.
In the process, the 49ers and Shanahan continued to learn the one thing about Purdy that had been so elusive in these playoffs. That even when he’s going through poor stretches or playing from behind, he can be counted upon to respond to the adversity and piece together wins. It was things that had his teammates clucking their tongues at critics that continued to paint him as a "game manager," even after a game-winning drive against the Packers in the divisional round.
“I hope they get off his back,” Young said Sunday. “Being the last pick of the draft leading his team to the Super Bowl in Year 2. Leading in every quarterback category. How can you hate on the guy?”
“They’re all going to have something to say,” Warner added. “But he’s a heck of a game manager.”
While Warner was being sarcastic, there’s little doubt that will be one of the massive storylines in this Super Bowl, with Mahomes representing a Michael Jordan-like level of success and playmaking style — not to mention his ability to elevate an offensive roster that is not as good as in past seasons. Conversely, Purdy will continue to be framed as a product of the system and depth chart constructed around him, even if the win over the Lions showcased a handful of linchpin moments from Purdy that were created off script and had little to do with the functionality of Shanahan’s offense.
Without a doubt, the Super Bowl will be a test of what Purdy can be on the biggest stage he’ll ever experience. In a way, it will be square one of his legacy in the league. But for Mahomes, it will be square six, eight, 10 or more, featuring a quest that is about chasing another quarterback entirely. Specifically, the shadow of Brady, whose legacy as the winningest and one of the most statistically dominant players in NFL history could someday be tested by a Chiefs quarterback who could, like Brady, stretch his career well into his 40s. And along with it, the decades-long Patriots dynasty that seemed too far in the stratosphere to even be considered. All that could change in two weeks.
For now, that’s a distant thought for the 49ers. The details of the Super Bowl are just kicking in. Along with a brief chance to catch their breath and refocus.
“I’m excited that we’re going there,” Shanahan said. “I’m happy for the Chiefs, too. Going to have a lot of fun tonight, probably, with my family and everything, and come in a little bit in slow motion tomorrow. [We’ll] figure out all the Super Bowl tickets, all the traveling and stuff, that takes a lot of time for the players and their families. The coaches will start getting a go on Kansas City while they do all that. I’ll probably give the guys a couple days off and then we’ll get to our game plan and practicing by Wednesday or Thursday.”
They’ll do it a little wiser and a little more confident in Purdy. But also with the biggest moment left ahead — for the quarterback, for Shanahan, and for the entire 49ers franchise that is the last roadblock left in front of the unquestioned stamping of another team’s dynasty.