Outside of the most fervent fans, few logically believed the 49ers were a Super Bowl-bound team before the 2019 season began.
Coming off a 4-12 campaign with starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo recovering from an ACL tear, expectations were for San Francisco to improve, but likely fall short of a playoff berth. Most believed they would finish behind what were assumed to be more impressive rosters in the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks.
But behind a thoroughly dominant defense and a strong running game, the Niners blitzed the regular season en route to a 13-win season and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
Are they the most unlikely Super Bowl team ever?
Close, but not quite according to ESPN.com’s Bill Barnwell, who has San Francisco as the second-most surprising Super Bowl participant in NFL history.
“The modern-day 49ers share some similarities with many of the other teams on this list,” Barnwell writes. “They were impossibly bad at forcing turnovers in 2018, with a league-low seven and an NFL-record two interceptions all season. The Niners topped that interception total in the 2019 season opener alone and ended up forcing 27 takeaways, the sixth-highest total in the league.”
On offense, a few dramatic statistical turnarounds fueled the Niners’ surge up the standings.
“The 49ers ranked 30th in the NFL in points per red zone possession on offense last season, but with a better offensive line, they improved to 19th in points per trip inside the 20. They followed in a Shanahan tradition by averaging a league-best 6.7 yards per play on first down and went from inheriting the league's worst average starting field position to its second-best average starting field position, a difference of 6.5 yards per possession.”
The only team ranked ahead of San Francisco, according to Barnwell, was the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who lost their starting quarterback to a torn ACL in the preseason. His replacement, Kurt Warner, won the MVP and eventually led the team to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Jimmy G and the Niners hope to earn a similar result when they face reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2.
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).