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How the 49ers got to NFC Championship Game: Key wins, acquisitions, turning point, biggest reasons for success

In early November, some 49ers fans may have been ready to hit the reset button. After a Week 9 drubbing at the hands of the rival Cardinals, San Francisco sat with a 2-5 record at the basement of the NFC West. A year after finishing last in the division, the team appeared well on its way to a fourth losing season in five years under coach Kyle Shanahan, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo both banged up and struggling. Oh, how the tides have turned. Fresh off an upset of the NFC’s No. 1-seeded Packers in Lambeau, Shanahan, Garoppolo and the 49ers are preparing for their second NFC Championship bid in three years.

Yes, that’s right. San Francisco is within one win of returning to the Super Bowl, just two years after the 49ers fell to the Chiefs on the biggest stage. How on Earth did Shanahan and Co. get here? Let’s review with a look back at their key acquisitions, most important wins and other notable moments from their 2021 campaign:

Key acquisitions

The 49ers didn’t make any major splashes after their 6-10 finish in 2020, relying more on the return of injured starters like QB Jimmy Garoppolo, TE George Kittle and DE Nick Bosa. But Mack, the longtime Falcons center, has helped keep the trenches intact, while Ebukam has logged six sacks (including playoffs) as one of the top pass rushers outside of Bosa. Norman, meanwhile, was an emergency addition to a battered secondary and remains better suited for a reserve role, but his experience has come in handy several times throughout the year.

Key draft picks

Lance is such a big wild card on this team in the wake of Garoppolo’s late-season push; imagine San Francisco re-evaluating its future at QB if/when Jimmy G — the guy they paid a premium to replace — makes another Super Bowl appearance. But he ably stepped in to replace an injured Garoppolo several times, even logging one win as a spot starter, and could be an underrated run-game weapon for Shanahan in the playoffs. Mitchell, when healthy, has been the top ball-carrier for one of the game’s steadiest rushing teams, nearly eclipsing 1,000 yards during the regular season. And Thomas worked his way into a starting role on the outside, improving with each nod as a No. 1.

Turning point

Week 10 vs. Rams: The 49ers entered this matchup with the more-talented Rams desperately needing a win, having fallen to 3-5 thanks to a blowout loss to Arizona at home the week prior. Deebo Samuel exploded at the right time, however, setting the stage for his future role as the every-week focal point of Shanahan’s attack, racking up over 100 total yards to aid an efficient outing from Garoppolo. DeMeco Ryans’ defense, meanwhile, sacked Matthew Stafford twice and picked him off just as many times, leading to a 31-10 upset that shifted the powers in the West and kicked off a 7-2 finish from San Francisco.

Key win

Week 18 vs. Rams: Can you sense a pattern here, with the Rams on deck in the NFC title game? Needing a win to clinch a playoff berth despite their strong finish to the season, the 49ers looked dead in the water against their rivals in this rematch at SoFi Stadium, going into halftime down 17-3 with little working offensively. But then both sides of the ball came to life, with Arik Armstead and the pass rush heating up on Stafford and Garoppolo finishing strong with some precision darts to guide a 27-24 overtime win. The victory marked Shanahan’s sixth straight against Sean McVay’s Rams, dating back to 2019.

Biggest reasons for their run

  • The dynamic ground game: Between Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel, Shanahan has found ways to control the clock and extend drives on the ground. Some weeks, he’s gotten RB1 production from other backs, like reserve Jeff Wilson, with no hiccups. Other times, he’s called on Lance to carry part of the load while filling in for Garoppolo. But they win in the trenches, and their ball-carriers take advantage of open space — key ingredients for January success.
  • The persistent pass rush: T.J. Watt got all kinds of love for his record-chasing sack artistry in Pittsburgh this season, but let’s not overlook Nick Bosa, who logged 15.5 sacks in the regular season and has already added 2.5 in the playoffs. Coupled with Armstead, Ebukam, D.J. Jones and the rest of the unit, he’s a constant threat to opposing teams’ QBs. Coordinator DeMeco Ryans is on a hot streak utilizing his personnel, stifling Dallas and Green Bay in back-to-back playoff upsets.

Full 2021 results

1

at Lions

W, 41-33

2

at Eagles

W, 17-11

3

vs. Packers

L, 30-28

4

vs. Seahawks

L, 28-21

5

at Cardinals

L, 17-10

7

vs. Colts

L, 30-18

8

at Bears

W, 33-22

9

vs. Cardinals

L, 31-17

10

vs. Rams

W, 31-10

11

at Jaguars

W, 30-10

12

vs. Vikings

W, 34-26

13

at Seahawks

L, 30-23

14

at Bengals

W, 26-23 (OT)

15

vs. Falcons

W, 31-13

16

at Titans

L, 20-17

17

vs. Texans

W, 23-7

18

at Rams

W, 27-24 (OT)

Wild Card

at Cowboys

W, 23-17

Divisional

at Packers

W, 13-10

NFC Championshipat RamsTBD

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