PHILADELPHIA — The biggest game of the season wasn’t a big game. The 49ers never had much of a chance.
It had nothing to do with their opponent, the Eagles.
It also had little to do with the 49ers.
No, this failure had everything to do with fate.
If the 49ers used magic or luck to get to the NFC Championship Game, they didn’t make the flight to Philadelphia.
And the NFC Championship game – planned as an incredible showdown of the conference’s top two teams – proved to be just a slow-marching crowning glory for the Eagles and an endless series of mishaps for the Niners.
Philadelphia won 31-7. However, the difference felt greater than 24 points. The Eagles didn’t even have a particularly good game, but everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for San Francisco.
The Eagles are playing the Super Bowl in two weeks. The Niners will not play again for eight months.
“I wish we had a little better opportunity than today,” said Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan. “I was really proud of how [the team] fought there. Our boys didn’t stop at anything. I thought they had been dealt a hard hand.”
It’s okay to be frustrated, maybe even angry if you’re a Niners fan. Sunday was another opportunity to win the franchise’s long-awaited six Super Bowls, wasted just before the finish line.
But blame the football gods for the result. The Niners played with their fourth-string quarterback in the first half of the game and a one-armed quarterback (whose working arm wasn’t his throwing arm) in the second.
Rookie third-row quarterback Brock Purdy led the Niners to eight straight wins and to the door of the Super Bowl. On Sunday, he injured his throwing arm at the end of the Niners’ first offensive drive of the game. His game should have been over.
“My arm just felt like it was stretched out,” Purdy said of Hassan Reddick’s defensive end arm smack. “[I] I felt a lot of shock everywhere from my elbow to my wrist, front and back. Just pain, really, everywhere.”
According to ESPN, the Niners fear Purdy has torn his ulnar collateral ligament, which connects his humerus to his ulna. It’s an all-too-common injury for baseball pitchers, but a rarity in the NFL. If he did indeed tear his UCL, it will be a months-long rehabilitation process that puts his 2023 season at risk.
Three quarterbacks started for the 49ers this season. All three suffered injuries at the end of the season.
And the Niners’ season ended the moment Purdy left the game.
Nevertheless, there were still three and a half quarters to play on Sunday.
That’s the cruelty of the NFL.
Joining them was Josh Johnson, an Oakland Tech graduate who has played on 16 different teams in his pro football career. He has stints in the United Football League, the XFL and the Alliance of American Football. The Niners are one of 13 NFL teams he has played for and this is his fourth stint with the team.
Johnson was signed by the Niners in December because he’s a good guy, a veteran pro and someone who could help young Purdy behind the scenes while the team’s second-line quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was rehabilitating a foot injury.
Johnson was not signed to play in the NFC Championship Game.
And yet he was there, tasked with leading the Niners to the Super Bowl.
The Niners scored once with Johnson at quarterback — running back Christian McCaffrey gained 44 of the 46 yards on a second-quarter scoring drive capped by a spectacular 23-yard touchdown run that saw him vault over the safe Marcus Epps and then three more tackles broke en route to the end zone.
But after a fumble from Johnson put the Eagles with a 21-7 lead at halftime, it was clear the veteran was no Purdy.
And then Johnson got hurt.
The veteran suffered a concussion from the Niners’ first attack of the second half and was eliminated from the game.
The Niners considered making McCaffrey a quarterback and almost fitted his helmet with the quarterback’s radio receiver. Instead, the Niners opted to reinstate Purdy at the last second before the Niners’ seventh possession.
The bottom line told you his return wasn’t the continuation of his incredible story.
“He couldn’t throw,” Shanahan said. “When he came in we had to decide what he could throw and there weren’t too many options.”
“I threw on the touchline after the hit just to see where I was,” Purdy said. “But even with those throws, it was painful.”
How important is it to have a quarterback who can throw the ball – literally – more than 10 yards down the field?
Well, the Niners had just 47 yards under attack in 21 second-half games because Philadelphia knew every game was a run or a super-short pass.
“One dimensional,” said wide receiver Jauan Jennings of the Niners’ offense. “This is the NFL. This isn’t high school football.”
“I was a part of [games] without linemen… something like that, but you lose a quarterback? It’s pretty tough playing football,” said Mike McGlinchey. “And that’s exactly what happened today. It’s very unfortunate. That’s all you can say about it. But that’s football, the ball bounces and that sucks.”
The 49ers didn’t stand a chance in the second half. The offense couldn’t move the ball, and the defense was tasked with not only shutting down the Eagles’ offense — a challenge that was hard enough — but also to score a goal of its own. Neither did it.
The end of the Niners’ season was inevitable and was processed during the competition. Offensive lineman Trent Williams lost his cool, knocked down an eagle and was ejected in the fourth quarter. Shanahan tried a trick play with McCaffrey as quarterback, but ultimately chose to expedite the process by keeping the clock ticking with relatively easy runs.
The Niners, who met the media in the dressing room after the game, were clear on what happened on Sunday.
In the team’s view, the team’s 12-game winning streak ended due to factors beyond their control.
And the football gods have been so insistent that many Niners could only shrug and laugh.
Star defenseman Nick Bosa found the perfect summary of the game in an inch-deep wound in his right leg — the by-product of an Eagles player’s cleat.
Bosa wasn’t even on the field when he had a puncture. No, he was standing on a punt on the sidelines and the eagle was blocked into him.
Getting hurt on the sidelines? Bosa said, “It was kind of a sign of a rough day.”