Sweet 16: The San Francisco 49ers' most significant non-Super Bowl games since 1977

He bought the San Francisco 49ers in 1977 at age 30 — then, over the next two-plus decades, helped them become the most consistently successful franchise in professional sports. So when Eddie DeBartolo tells me he feels very, very upbeat about the Niners' chances heading into a big game, as he did about an hour before last Sunday’s NFC championship showdown with the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, I tend to pay attention.

DeBartolo, who sold his interest in the 49ers 13 years ago, was serving as an honorary captain at the behest of his nephew, Jed York, the organization’s 31-year-old CEO. Standing on the Niners' sideline, gesturing toward a Patrick Willis-led group of linebackers backpedaling during a warmup drill, Eddie D. confidently referenced the most resounding victory of his ownership tenure while predicting a San Francisco triumph.

"I think it’s gonna be like our game against Denver," DeBartolo said. "I think we’re gonna jump all over them and never let up."

He was talking about the most lopsided blowout in Super Bowl history, the 49ers' 55-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos at the New Orleans Superdome 23 years ago. In that game San Francisco won its fourth championship in nine seasons, with Joe Montana taking home his third Super Bowl MVP award. Five years later, Steve Young quarterbacked the Niners to their fifth and final Super Bowl crown, throwing a record six touchdown passes in a 49-26 rout of the San Diego Chargers.

"I’m serious," DeBartolo insisted. "I have a good feeling about this game. I just believe we’re better."

He was right about that last part – though just barely. The 49ers, who trailed 17-0 one play into the second quarter, pulled out a 28-24 victory over the Falcons to make their long-awaited return to the Ultimate Game.

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A week from Sunday at the Superdome, Colin Kaepernick will attempt to lead the Niners to victory over the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens and push their Super Bowl record to a spotless 6-0. If the five prior triumphs rank as the crowning achievements in the franchise’s history, San Francisco’s stirring win in the Georgia Dome last Sunday will go down as one of the most important non-Super Bowl efforts of the DeBartolo/York era – the still-in-progress family stewardship passed from DeBartolo to his sister, Denise (and her husband, John York), and later to Jed York.

How significant, precisely, was Sunday's victory? As someone who grew up a rabid 49ers fan, later covered the team on a daily basis for a pair of Northern California newspapers, and continued to chronicle their exploits for Sports Illustrated and Y! Sports, I believe I’m qualified to answer.

Here, in descending order, is a list of the franchise's most significant games from 1977-2013 (not including the Super Bowls), which Niners loyalists will regard as a Sweet 16. That’s 16 as in Super Bowl XVI, from which the 49ers took home their first Lombardi Trophy, and as in the uniform number worn by You Know You.

16. A Star Is Born (Dec. 9, 1985): The defending champion 49ers hosted the rival Los Angeles Rams in a Monday Night Football Game at Candlestick Park and suffered a 27-20 defeat, blowing a late lead and surrendering the NFC West title in the process. However, the Niners, who would rally to make the playoffs as a wild-card, gained something far more important: The realization that the small-college receiver for whom Bill Walsh had traded up to select in the first round of that April’s draft was headed for superstardom. Before this game Jerry Rice had struggled with dropped balls and had been viewed as somewhat of a bust; his 10-catch, 241-yard performance (which included a 66-yard touchdown throw from Montana) set him on an unmatched path that would end with his bust being unveiled in Canton.

15. The Eagles Have Crash-Landed (Sept. 24, 1989): The third game of the George Seifert era was one of the most memorable I've ever covered. It was viewed as a statement game for Buddy Ryan's emerging Eagles, who pummeled Montana for six first-half sacks (and eight overall) while storming to a pair of 11-point leads. After 49ers offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick famously suggested that his charges "start praying," offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren went to a spread formation – and Montana threw four fourth-quarter touchdown passes to lead S.F. to a 38-28 victory. As 66,042 fans quietly walked out of Veterans Stadium, it was the visitors who’d made the statement: "We've got Joe Montana, and you don't." A little more than four months later, the Niners would win their second consecutive championship.

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14. Meet the Real 49ers (Jan. 14, 1990): Before blowing out the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, the Niners had to get past the rival Rams at Candlestick, and many believed they were ripe for an upset. The Rams had handed the Niners one of their two defeats on the season, beating them in Candlestick in October, and only a dramatic comeback on Monday Night Football (fueled by a pair of 90-plus-yard Montana-to-John Taylor scoring plays off short passes) had prevented an L.A. sweep. Many Niners fans were fretting; my dad, however, was not among them. “The 49ers will kill them,” he assured me. “The Rams think it's going to be like the regular season. They have no idea what it's like to go up against the real 49ers, in the playoffs.” He was spot-on: San Francisco 30, Los Angeles 3, in a beat-down so severe that Rams quarterback Jim Everett took a phantom sack – and, arguably, was never the same player afterward.

13. Garcia Rocks the Bay (Jan. 5, 2003): The Niners trailed the New York Giants 38-14 with four minutes left in the third quarter at Candlestick before mounting the second biggest comeback in playoff history, scoring 25 unanswered points to pull off a 39-38 shocker. Quarterback Jeff Garcia (331 passing yards, 60 rushing yards) and receiver Terrell Owens (nine catches, 177 yards, two TDs, two two-point conversions, one improbable halftime speech) were among the heroes for San Francisco, which didn't clinch the victory until a bad snap – by veteran Trey Junkin, who had been summoned out of retirement for the game – derailed the Giants' 41-yard field-goal attempt on the final play. Holder Matt Allen picked up the ball and threw a desperation pass, but the 49ers' Chike Okeafor tackled New York’s Rich Seubert (an eligible receiver on the play), with then-NFL supervisor of officials Mike Perreira later conceding that pass interference should have been called. Niners coach Steve Mariucci’s reaction: "Bummer."

12. The Crying Game (Jan. 15, 2012): The 49ers' first playoff game in nine years featured one of the more fantastic finishes in NFL postseason history, with San Francisco and the New Orleans Saints twice trading scores in the final minutes at Candlestick. In the end, Vernon Davis capped a phenomenal afternoon by catching a 14-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith with nine seconds remaining – causing the once-maligned tight end to burst into tears, evoking memories of "The Catch" 30 years earlier and giving the home team a 36-32 victory. The 49ers' divisional-round victory at Candlestick Park took on even greater significance after the infamous Gregg Williams audio tape surfaced less than three months later.

11. The Heart of a Champion (Nov. 12, 1995): The defending champion Niners hit the road to face the rival Dallas Cowboys as 10-point underdogs, with Elvis Grbac filling in for the injured Young at quarterback. At stake was a streak of 225 games (since 1980) without the 49ers having suffered more than two consecutive defeats in a single season, the longest such run in NFL history. Thanks to a brilliant game plan by offensive coordinator Marc Trestman (and a damn good one by defensive coordinator Pete Carroll, too), the Niners raced to a 31-7 halftime lead and cruised to a 38-20 victory. Four years later, after Young suffered a career-ending concussion, San Francisco would finally experience a three-game losing streak.

10. The Stumble, the Rumble and the Roar (Jan. 3, 1999): After getting bounced from the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers for three consecutive seasons, the Niners looked destined for a fourth straight flameout in the final seconds of this wild-card playoff game at Candlestick (technically '3 Com Park' at the time). With San Francisco trailing by four, Young nearly fell as he dropped back to pass before steadying himself and rifling a glorious, 25-yard pass into quadruple coverage toward Owens, who had dropped four balls on the day. He caught this one in the end zone with three seconds remaining to give the Niners a stunning, 30-27 victory over the Holmgren-coached Pack. Some dubbed this "The Catch II," but Young's pinpoint pass deserved equal billing – at least.

9. Back from the Brink (Nov. 21, 1988): In 1988, the Niners – who hadn't won a playoff game in the previous three seasons – and the defending champion Washington Redskins met in a pivotal Monday Night Football game at Candlestick. Both teams were 6-5 and desperate for a victory. Things were especially tense in San Francisco, where Montana and Young were locked in a full-blown quarterback controversy, with Walsh having "rested" Montana in several games because the legendary coach claimed the two-time Super Bowl champion was "fatigued" (a characterization with which Montana disagreed vehemently). Montana played big in a 37-21 victory that launched a four-game winning streak that set up a Super Bowl run in January. Rice's 80-yard touchdown catch and Taylor's 95-yard punt return didn't hurt, either.

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8. The Comeback Kid (Dec. 7, 1980): In his second season as the Niners' coach, Walsh began giving Montana, a second-year passer from Notre Dame, some spot work in place of starting quarterback Steve DeBerg. With San Francisco (5-8) out of playoff contention, Montana got the call at Candlestick against the 0-13 New Orleans Saints, who stormed to a 35-7 lead behind quarterback Archie Manning. Then Montana, already a legend because of the Chicken Soup game in his final college performance, led what was then the greatest comeback in NFL history, and the Niners prevailed in overtime, 38-35. From that moment on, 49ers fans knew they had a special quarterback leading their team.

7. Montana’s Back (Nov. 9, 1986): Less than two months after undergoing back surgery, Montana made a quicker-than-expected return to the lineup, and all of Northern California held its collective breath. Would Montana ever be the same player he was before the injury? Could he stand up to the physical punishment? His emphatic response: Touchdown passes of 45, 40 and 44 yards to Rice in a 43-17 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Candlestick, and no discernible damage caused by a pair of roughing-the-passer penalties. He would build on that triumphant return by leading San Francisco to the NFC West title. For many Niners fans, other than the '81 NFC championship game, this was the most stressful Sunday of the '80s.

6. Forty (Expletive) Niners (Oct. 11, 1981): That was the slogan that appeared on T-shirts during a season in which San Francisco, coming off a 6-10 campaign, rolled to a league-best 13-3 record and won its first championship. And the first sign that something special was happening in San Francisco came on this autumn afternoon at Candlestick, when the underdog Niners stunned the Cowboys 45-14. The visitors later rationalized the defeat by claiming that they wore the wrong cleats (the Cowboys' equipment staff packed only turf shoes, apparently unaware that Candlestick's surface had switched from AstroTurf to grass two years earlier), with Cowboys defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones saying he still didn’t respect the 49ers. That prompted Montana, during the rematch in that '81 NFC championship game, to scream at the 6-9 Jones, "Respect this, (expletive)!" after a long second-quarter completion to Dwight Clark.

5. Not Going Away Quietly (Jan. 8, 1984): After winning their first Super Bowl, the Niners had flamed out and missed the playoffs in the strike-shortened '82 season. They rebounded to reach the 1983 NFC championship game but were 10-point underdogs against the defending champion Redskins at frigid RFK Stadium, and '81 was starting to feel like a one-hit wonder. The Skins led 21-0 in the fourth quarter, and the home fans had already started celebrating a return trip to the Super Bowl. And then Montana, in one of his greatest acts of defiance, showed the Redskins – and the football world – that the Niners were there to stay. The quarterback coolly directed three successive touchdown drives, bracketing short scoring passes to No. 3 wideout Mike Wilson with a 76-yard bomb to Freddie Solomon. With the game tied at 21, the Redskins went on a game-winning drive aided by two of the most ridiculous (Can you tell I was a 49ers fan at the time?) – er, controversial – penalties you'll ever see, a pass-interference call on cornerback Eric Wright and a defensive holding infraction on cornerback Ronnie Lott, who had his hands up at the time. That set up a chip shot for Mark Moseley, who had missed four field goals on the day but made this 25-yarder for a 24-21 victory. The Niners flew back to San Francisco knowing they hadn’t gone down without a fight – and they would come back the following season with a vengeance, going 18-1 to win their second championship.

4. The Validation (Jan 20, 2013): With Kaepernick replacing injured starter Alex Smith and playing well in his debut as an NFL starter in November, coach Jim Harbaugh made the controversial decision to stick with the second-year quarterback. When Kaepernick stayed cool and led San Francisco back from a 17-0 deficit at the Georgia Dome last Sunday, with the Niners prevailing 28-24 over the Falcons after a late defensive stand, Harbaugh’s decision was officially validated. And for the first time in 18 years, Niners fans are feeling Super.

3. Sweet Redemption (Jan. 15, 1995): After losing consecutive NFC championship games to the Jimmy Johnson-coached Cowboys, the Niners loaded up with high-profile free agents and were hell-bent on winning it all. As soon as the 1994 NFC championship game began at Candlestick, it was clear that this mission would very likely be accomplished, as this was a different 49ers team. On the third play of the game, San Francisco cornerback Eric Davis took a Troy Aikman pass 44 yards to the house, and two additional Cowboys turnovers in the first five minutes helped the Niners grab a 21-0 lead. A sweet Young to Rice pass made it 31-14 just before halftime, and the 49ers held on to win 38-28. Dallas didn't go down meekly: During the second half, Barry Switzer, who'd replaced Johnson as the Cowboys' coach following the '93 season, received a key unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for making contact with an official. Two weeks later, Young would officially transform himself from Montana's highly scrutinized successor to future Hall of Famer with his record-setting performance in Super Bowl XXIX.

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2. The Death of the '46' (Jan. 8, 1989): In response to Walsh's West Coast Offense, Buddy Ryan, the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator from 1978-85, had created the '46' defense, a blitz-happy scheme designed to inflict maximum punishment upon the quarterback. The Niners had subsequently struggled in several games against the Bears, and when they went to Soldier Field for the 1988 NFC championship game, the brutally cold weather (minus-26 wind chill) loomed as another daunting obstacle. Montana, however, delivered precise passes through the whipping wind, and Rice took advantage of the '46' scheme's biggest liability – lack of safety help – to score first-half touchdowns of 61 and 27 yards. San Francisco's 28-3 victory was a comprehensive dismantling of the Mike Ditka-coached Bears and preceded the team's third Super Bowl triumph, over the Cincinnati Bengals in temperate Miami, on Montana's dramatic touchdown pass to Taylor in the final seconds.

1. The Catch (Jan. 10, 1982): Yes, this had to be No. 1. Of course, it did. And no matter what happens from now until the end of time, if you're a true 49ers fan, this game will always rank above all others. Long tormented by the Cowboys, in a city that had never experienced a professional sports championship, Montana led a stirring late-game comeback that culminated with Clark's iconic Catch, giving the Niners a 28-27 victory in the '81 NFC championship game and sending them to their first Super Bowl. I was 16 at the time; my future SI colleague, the legendary Paul (Dr. Z) Zimmerman, understood this game's historical significance as soon as he witnessed it. And if you were alive to bleed red-and-gold that day, you remember two heart-stopping moments after Clark’s touchdown: Wright’s shoulder-pad takedown of Drew Pearson in the open field (thank heaven tear-away jerseys had just been outlawed) and Lawrence Pillers' game-clinching sack of Danny White on the next play, forcing a fumble that teammate Jim Stuckey recovered. Then there was Montana, taking a knee and raising both arms to the sky, fittingly making 'No. 1' gestures with each index finger. That image is still burned into my mind, and I guarantee DeBartolo can close his eyes and envision it even more vividly.

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