The 49ers this season became the third team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after finishing the previous year with four or fewer victories. The 49ers joined the 1999 St. Louis Rams and the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals.
And there was no set formula for success, either.
“I think we've done it every way possible this year and I think our players have really bought into that,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
The 49ers had weekly battles down the stretch and managed to grind out a 13-3 record in the regular season. Shockingly, things got a lot easier for the team as they breezed through the NFC side of the playoff bracket with 17-point victories over the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.
There were a lot of moments leading up to the 49ers’ date in Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 2 in Miami that defined this club. Here are five of those moments or sequences that stand out:
Bosa and ‘mates Mud Bowl champs
The game itself was not exactly a thing of beauty. In fact, it was very much reflective of the horrendous weather and sloppy field conditions.
But, man, did the 49ers have fun in their 9-0 victory over Washington on Oct. 20.
Rookie Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, immediately fit in on and off the field. And that was ultra-apparent on the final play of the game when he registered a sack of Washington quarterback Case Keenum, then produced a belly-flop dive along the slick grass field.
Immediately, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Kwon Alexander joined him, followed by other players who emptied off the 49ers’ sideline to celebrate their sixth consecutive victory to open the season.
Garoppolo, equal-opportunity hero-maker
It was not always easy for the 49ers during the regular season. In fact, nine of their games came down to the final seconds. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led four fourth-quarter comeback victories.
After returning home from a successful two-game road trip to open the season, the 49ers had a tough time against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Garoppolo found Dante Pettis for a 5-yard touchdown pass for the winning score with 1:15 remaining.
In Week 11, the 49ers also struggled to put away the Arizona Cardinals. But with 31 seconds remaining, Garoppolo hit Jeff Wilson out of the backfield for a 25-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a four-point lead. It was Wilson's only offensive play of the game.
The winning formula changed from week to week. Neither Pettis nor Wilson has played in months, as their spots now are filled by others. Yet, when they were called upon in critical moments, they came through. And the 49ers would not have gained home-field advantage without those contributions.
Eight plays, all runs
We skip ahead to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
All eyes were on Garoppolo, making his first postseason start. But the flash-and-splash of the passing game gave way to the primitive basics of football. Shanahan decided to merely run the ball down the throats of the Vikings.
After the 49ers took over in the third quarter on Richard Sherman’s interception, Shanahan called eight consecutive running plays. Everybody knew what was coming and the Vikings could not stop it.
Tevin Coleman capped the eight-play, 44-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown that enabled the 49ers to seize control of that game. Each of the 49ers’ eight plays were runs, and they repeated many of the plays while simply manhandling the Vikings down the field.
Then, the 49ers got even more punishing in the NFC Championship Game, as 42 of their 51 offensive plays were runs. Raheem Mostert set the franchise record with 220 yards rushing. He scored four touchdowns, too.
The 49ers' reliance on their running game proved to be tone-setters for those playoff games, seemingly accomplishing the goals of controlling the clock and demoralizing the Vikings and Packers along the way.
Division champs with an inch to spare
Let’s never underestimate the importance of the fourth-and-goal play from the 5-yard line in Week 17.
If the 49ers lose to the Seattle Seahawks in the regular-season finale, they enter the playoffs as a wild-card team and immediately hit the road for a date in Philadelphia with the Eagles. And it all came down to one play.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson found tight end Jacob Hollister near the goal line. Rookie Dre Greenlaw diagnosed the route immediately and stepped up to make a sturdy tackle just in front of the goal line. After a review in New York, the call stood and the 49ers held on for a 26-21 victory in Seattle.
Greenlaw made the play that changed everything for the 49ers in the postseason. Upon the 49ers’ return to the Bay Area, they assured themselves they would not have to step on a plane again until Sunday, when the group heads to Miami for the Super Bowl.
Kittle’s mad dash in New Orleans
Like so many other situations for the 49ers, if just one play had gone differently, they might not be where they are right now.
The most notable offensive play occurred in Week 14 in New Orleans, as the 49ers faced a fourth-and-2 situation from their own 33-yard line late in the game, trailing the Saints 46-45.
During that week of practice, tight end George Kittle messed up his route on a couple occasions as the 49ers worked on late-game situations such as this. Yet, Shanahan decided to call the play at the biggest moment of the game – and, perhaps, the season.
This time, Kittle executed his route perfectly against Saints rookie defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Then, New Orleans safety Marcus Williams tried to bring down Kittle, who kept churning his legs despite Williams having a firm grasp of his facemask.
“It took them to almost rip his neck off for them to bring him down,” 49ers lineman Mike McGlinchey said.
By the time several other Saints defenders jumped on, Kittle gained 39 yards, plus an additional 14 yards (half the distance to the goal) for the facemask penalty. That set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning kick on the final snap of the game.
The 49ers won, 48-46, in a game that would be the difference in the 49ers earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Garoppolo proved he can win a shootout.
And Kittle, the 49ers’ only All-Pro player, proved he can carry a team – or, actually, two teams -- on his back.
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday).