Five 49ers moments that defined journey to Super Bowl 54 vs. Chiefs

Five 49ers moments that defined journey to Super Bowl 54 vs. Chiefs

The turnaround came quickly.

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.

[RELATED: Can 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo deliver when it matters in Super Bowl 54?]

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).

49ers mailbag: Could co-coordinators ease Kyle Shanahan's workload?

49ers mailbag: Could co-coordinators ease Kyle Shanahan's workload?

It has been two weeks since the 49ers’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. That’s more than enough time to turn the page and look ahead.

So that’s what we’re doing -- with the help from some of our Twitter friends. Here is the first offseason edition of the 49ers Mailbag.

Kyle Shanahan is one of the best play-callers in the NFL. I don’t think there’s even a question about that. Is there? So I can’t envision any scenario in which Shanahan stops doing the thing he does best.

Shanahan certainly believes McDaniel and LaFleur are ready to call plays. McDaniel and LaFleur are, in essence, co-offensive coordinators. They are responsible for putting together the first components of the weekly game plan.

Through the first three seasons together with the 49ers, they have found a pretty good rhythm together and Shanahan finds himself placing more trust in them. What they’re doing is working.

If the 49ers have the $19 million-plus in cap room to devote to a franchise tag for Arik Armstead, then I think they could work out a long-term deal that would work for both sides.

As for the question about a tag-and-trade, I’m sure you’re thinking about how the Kansas City Chiefs tagged Dee Ford a year ago and, then, traded him to the 49ers. In that instance, the Chiefs had Frank Clark on the line, so that made sense.

In this case, I don’t think there’s anyone who plays Armstead’s position they would prefer over him. Armstead is exactly what the 49ers need: A defensive end on base downs who moves inside next to DeForest Buckner to rush the passer in nickel situations.

There is no need for the 49ers to do anything with Thomas, except work with him to continue to improve and become more valuable as a rotational player on the defensive line. The 49ers certainly will not pick up the fifth-year option on Thomas for the 2021 season. But with Thomas’ rookie contract guaranteed, there is no cap advantage in parting ways with him this year.

Regardless, Thomas should have a significant role next season. But if for whatever reason Armstead is not back, Thomas has a strong chance to be a starter.

The possibility of recouping a draft pick is part of the reason the 49ers felt compelled to make the trade in the first place. In my opinion, they would have preferred Mohamed Sanu, who was under contract through the 2020 season. But the Patriots offered the Atlanta Falcons a second-round draft pick, and the 49ers did not have a second-round pick after dealing it to Kansas City for Dee Ford.

Instead, the 49ers acquired Sanders and a fifth-round pick from Denver in return for third- and fourth-round draft picks. The 49ers do not figure to be active with veteran acquisitions on the free-agent market this offseason, so it is likely the 49ers have more losses than gains. If Sanders is a loss, the 49ers would stand a good chance of picking up a compensatory pick for the 2021 draft.

Get stronger. Work. Work. Work.

Pettis had a good offseason program a year ago, but he was not the same player when he came back for training camp. Other receivers on the team came back stronger at the opening of camp. Pettis did not. That is why Pettis struggled and fell out of favor to the point he rarely played in the second half of the season.

Pettis needs to take it up another few notches to get stronger and avoid the nagging injuries that also set him back last season. Pettis has more ability than almost anyone on the team to run some of Shanahan’s favorite routes. He will have an opportunity to prove himself in the offseason and training camp this year.

If Jalen Hurd and Pettis are both healthy, I think the answer is Hurd. The reason is because of his size and his unique skill set.

I envision Hurd being a big part of the 49ers’ two-minute offense because of his versatility. The 49ers can line him up anywhere in the formation, including running back. That puts the onus on the defense to figure out how they want to treat him. Is he a runner, wide receiver or tight end? Then, based on the defensive personnel, the 49ers can exploit those weaknesses.

[RELATED: Juice sick of Jimmy G, Shanahan criticism after Super Bowl]

The draft takes place more than a month after free agency. So the answer to this question could change, based on what the 49ers’ roster looks like at the time of the draft. But, right now, if the 49ers hold onto the No. 31 overall pick, the team can choose among the best available wide receiver, cornerback or defensive lineman.

There are two ways to look at this. But if there’s a team willing to move up to No. 31 overall, then that is the default move. It would make a lot of sense to sit out the first round of the draft to come away with multiple picks on Day 2.

But if there is someone at No. 31 with whom the organization has fallen in love, then they should take that player. The advantage of holding onto the first-round draft pick is that the 49ers would control the contract rights to the player for five years, instead of four.

49ers' Kyle Juszczyk sick of Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan criticism

49ers' Kyle Juszczyk sick of Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan criticism

Losing the Super Bowl was tough on the 49ers, to say the least. It was especially tough for the team's fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, who hated hearing the criticism of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan, his quarterback and coach.

"Those are two guys that have absolutely nothing to prove to the rest of the guys in the locker room," Juice said Friday on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football." "You look at Jimmy, for people that are stats guys, 4,000 yards passing, better than a two-to-one, touchdown-interception ratio, 70 percent completion."

He added with that alone, you're looking at a "phenomenal quarterback."

"For whatever reason, Jimmy just gets this extra criticism, this extra heat, but I think at one point in the game he was like 19-for-22," Jusczyk said. 

"That's football, though -- you just change one or two plays in the game, and the whole dialogue changes, the whole narrative."

Juice mentioned the moment that could have put Jimmy G in the same category as Tom Brady as a Super Bowl MVP. The moment that could have led to the 49ers popping champagne in San Francisco amongst the faithful.

That could have been a game-changer.

The play in question caused wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to storm out of the media room following the Super Bowl LIV loss to the Chiefs. Garoppolo's overthrow in the fourth quarter changed everything.

[RELATED: What Juice regrets most from 49ers' Super Bowl collapse]

And they know it. Jimmy knows it. Sanders knows it. Shanahan knows it. 

"It's a shame that one or two plays can really change everyone's outlook on someone," Juszczyk said.