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Why this San Francisco 49ers playoff loss felt different

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs the ball against San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw (57) during the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Jan. 29, 2023. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

For most of Sunday’s 31-7 NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers fans felt a sense of dread and inevitability that hadn’t accompanied any of their last five playoff defeats.

Sunday’s loss, a game that turned south when Brock Purdy left with an elbow injury in the first quarter and fell apart after Josh Johnson lost a fumble late in the second quarter, was the first lopsided playoff defeat the 49ers had suffered since 2003.

All five times San Francisco had lost in the postseason over the past 11 years were last-second heartbreakers, including a pair of squandered double-digit leads in Super Bowl LIV and the 2022 NFC Championship Game.

This time, the loss came with a sense of resignation. Even before Jalen Hurts’ 1-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the third quarter, a 14-point deficit seemed insurmountable with Purdy injured, then forced to return to the game with a damaged arm when Johnson was concussed.

Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) signals a fumble recovery during the the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The injuries crushed fans’ hopes early. Christian McCaffrey’s 23-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 7 midway through the second quarter offered a brief glimmer of hope, but Philadelphia immediately responded with a 20-play drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes of clock, capped off by Miles Sanders’ 13-yard touchdown run. Three players later, Johnson bobbled a snap that Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick recovered, and Boston Scott ran for a 10-yard touchdown less than a minute later.

Debilitating injuries aren’t new for 49ers fans—Jimmy Garoppolo’s poor health torpedoed the 2018 and 2020 seasons—but San Francisco hadn’t decisively lost a playoff game since Jan. 12, 2003, when they were thumped 31-6 by the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It’s a different type of heartbreak than the gut-wrenching defeats that have ended prior bids at the “Quest for Six.” The only real intrigue in the fourth quarter came when a fight broke out with just over four minutes remaining, resulting in the ejections of 49ers left tackle Trent Williams and Eagles safety K’Von Wallace.

Most 49ers fans don’t need reminders of how their other recent playoff runs ended, but a refresher for the unfamiliar: First came Kyle Williams’ fumbled punt return in overtime of the 2011 NFC Championship Game (played in January 2012, but at the conclusion of the 2011 season), which set up a game-winning field goal for the New York Giants. A year later, the Niners nearly came back from a 28-6 hole in Super Bowl XLVII against this author’s favorite team, the Baltimore Ravens, only to falter at the goal line in the final minutes when offensive coordinator Greg Roman abandoned the run game. Roman later became Baltimore’s offensive coordinator and angered fans and players on the East Coast before resigning earlier this month.

A year later, San Francisco was on the verge of returning to the Super Bowl when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s bid for a game-winning touchdown pass to linebacker Malcolm Smith for an interception, which Sherman then followed up with a memorable interview that became synonymous with the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry.

On Feb. 2, 2020, the 49ers led the Kansas City Chiefs 20-10 in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV and held the ball after Tarvarius Moore intercepted Patrick Mahones in the red zone, but surrendered the game’s final 21 points. After the Chiefs had taken a 24-20 lead on a short Mahomes touchdown pass to Damien Williams, Garoppolo overthrew a wide open Emmanuel Sanders on what would have been a surefire go-ahead touchdown. Frank Clark sacked Garoppolo on the next play for a turnover on downs, and the Chiefs scored an insurance TD two plays later.

Last year, after back-to-back thrilling road wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, the 49ers traveled to Los Angeles to face a Rams side that they had swept in the regular season and took a 17-7 lead with 1:59 left in the third quarter, but got outscored 13-0 in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo was intercepted by Travin Howard inside the final two minutes to seal the game, sealing another blown playoff lead for head coach Kyle Shanahan.

San Francisco 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. (31) watches Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders (26) celebrate his 13-yard touchdown run. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

There was no such shock this time as the final minutes ticked off. The rug wasn’t pulled out at the last moment. Thoughts were already shifting to the severity of Purdy’s injury and potential targets in the upcoming draft.

As of now, the 49ers won’t have any picks until the end of the third round of this year’s draft, which is scheduled for April 27-29 in Kansas City. They traded away their early picks to draft Trey Lance last year and acquire Christian McCaffrey in October, but the Niners are in line for three compensatory picks at the end of Round 3.