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49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk catches the ball over Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor in the third quarter of the NFC championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Junfu Han-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Football is a Game of Inches and What-ifs

May 23, 2024 at 7:45 AM

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Football is a game of inches and what-ifs. The 49ers Faithful know that all too well.

First downs are sometimes made or missed by the nose of a football or a few links in the yard marker chain. Likewise, games are often decided by a tipped pass, the bounce of a ball, or a missed blocking assignment.

This truth was on full display in the most recent NFC Championship and the Super Bowl. In the NFC title game, good fortune favored the 49ers, but in the Super Bowl, the breaks went the Chiefs' way, leading to Kansas City's victory.

The Lions ran away with a 17-point halftime lead in the NFC Championship. But then, in the most improbable fashion, momentum swung. An overthrown ball ricocheted off the facemask of Lions defender Kindle Vildor and into the arms of a diving Brandon Aiyuk. The remarkable and fortuitous play completed a 51-yard throw and catch, putting the 49ers in striking distance at the Lions' five-yard line. Subsequently, the 49ers scored on a short pass to Aiyuk.

Moments later, Jahmyr Gibbs coughed up a fumble, which Arik Armstead recovered at the 25-yard line. The crowd exploded. The momentum swing was palpable.

The Niners scored 27 unanswered points, wresting the game from Detroit and earning a trip to the Super Bowl. Had the Niners not executed those plays, the Lions likely win.

Unfortunately, mental miscues and misfortune cost the 49ers a Super Bowl victory two weeks later.

Nearing the end of the first half, weakside linebacker Dre Greenlaw suffered a fluke, non-contact injury. Greenlaw blew out his Achilles tendon merely running out onto the field. It was a very costly injury. Travis Kelsey caught one pass for one yard with Greenlaw on the field. However, Kelsey racked up 92 yards receiving with Greenlaw sidelined.

A healthy Greenlaw and avoiding any one of three miscues likely could have swung the game's outcome.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (13) is pressured by Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (95) in the second half in Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium. Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly before halftime, a muffed punt bounced off the foot of Darrel Luter, Jr. The Chiefs recovered at the 16-yard line. Kansas City scored their first touchdown on the ensuing play. Had that erratic bouncing ball not hit Luter, Jr., the Niners would probably have closed the half with a three-point lead rather than a four-point deficit.

San Francisco kicker Jake Moody missed an extra point in the fourth quarter. It appeared the ball came off Moody's ankle instead of his instep. That striking point caused the ball to take a lower trajectory, allowing Chiefs linebacker Leo Chanel to block the kick. Had Moody made the extra point kick, the 49ers would have taken a four-point lead, and the game might never have gone to overtime.

Fast forward to overtime. The Niners had the ball on the Kansas City eight-yard line and threatened to score a go-ahead touchdown. A pass play was called on third down. The primary target, Jauan Jennings, was isolated on a whip route to the right. However, the right side of the offensive line (some suggest Spencer Burford) missed the blocking assignment, thus giving Chris Jones a free rush to the quarterback. Under duress, Purdy underthrew a pass to the right flat. Given a second more, Purdy could have hit a wide-open Brandon Aiyuk in the end zone.

Oh, the what-ifs. A reversal of any of those three plays likely cost the Niners a Super Bowl ring. Yes, what-ifs are a part of the game. Thankfully, they are also a source of optimism because fans will always believe the game's outcome would have been different given a do-over.
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