There are moments in a sports fans life, more importantly, a football fans life which define them and the team they follow. For fans of the San Francisco 49ers those instances have come in abundance over the last 30-years. For those not in the know, it was three decades ago last week that Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark for the go ahead touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys and earned a trip to Super Bowl XVI.
Since that glorious day at Candlestick Park in 1981 the 49ers had enjoyed never before seen consistency in winning five Super Bowl championships. It was a steadiness that was destined to be altered however dictated by the ever-changing NFL landscape. Those times, some of the most magnificent and rewarding years any NFL team had ever witnessed had dissipated and been almost an afterthought for the past 10-years.
The 49ers, as most teams in the league were left to wonder if they would ever experience that level of joy and winning or if it would even be possible again. While the answer to that question has proven to most assuredly be no, some teams have been able to stay competitive year in and year out. New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh are just a few teams who hold that distinction, but I digress. Even with those storied franchises defying the odds there has never been a dynasty like that of the 49ers.
There have been a bevy of intense moments in which this team has given their fans reason for jubilation. The aforementioned, “Catch” from Montana to Clark. “The Catch II” from Steve Young to Terrell Owens against Green Bay in the 1998 Wildcard match-up at Candlestick, and after this past weekend. Most recently of course, “The Catch III” that saw perennial whipping boy Alex Smith connect with tight end Vernon Davis for another postseason triumph. The last of which should have dispelled any doubters that were left to wonder, “Are the San Francisco 49ers for real?” Let it be said now, even if the 49ers fail to emerge from this season with the ultimate goal, they have exceeded any and all expectations by leaps and bounds in 2011.
When you invest your heart and soul into a football franchise it takes on a different meaning. The team becomes a part of you. The players you grew up watching since you were only knee-high hold a special place in your heart. You remember where you were for specific games and in many cases specific plays. As 49er fans we were spoiled over the years, 16 straight seasons with 10 or more wins says it all. We were Super Bowl contenders every year from 1982 to 1998. The Jeff Garcia era notwithstanding this fan base has not had so much reason for happiness since that Young to Owens connection in ’98, until now.
This Sunday presents a new challenge from an age-old opponent, one who the 49ers have faced in many playoff battles over the decades. The New York Giants, a team playing with the same ferocity and momentum as the 49ers at this juncture. With such obvious east coast bias in the media, it’s no wonder that very few pundits are picking the 49ers to overcome their one time nemesis. The last time these two teams faced off for a Super Bowl berth was in 1990 and that game too was played inside the confines of Candlestick Park. The Giants of course left San Francisco that day winners and went on to become Super Bowl champions and the 49ers were left to wonder what might have been.
The 2012 NFC Championship is so far removed from that contest it’s like night and day. At that time both teams were perennial title contenders, now only has been, with the Giants winning the Super Bowl in 2007. Things are different for the 49ers now, 10-years removed from postseason contention, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his men find themselves in completely unfamiliar territory. On the other side, the Giants Tom Coughlin and his All-Pro quarterback Eli Manning, have been here before and know what it takes to win on the road in the biggest of stages.
Even with these facts, I like the 49ers chances this weekend. If they play their brand of football, the form that has delivered them to this very point, they will be on their way to Indianapolis. Control the clock with the running game, light up the Giants backs and receivers on defense, and win the field position battle on special teams and this game is a wrap. Easier said than done I know, but this team is as poised and focused as they’ve been in years, a Super Bowl berth is very much in their sights.