With the NFL playoffs underway, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves in the hunt for the Lombardi for the third time in four years. While a shaky start to the season left San Francisco 3-4 after Week 7, Kyle Shanahan’s group has since won 10 straight games, placing the 49ers as the No. 2 seed at the close of the regular season. They’ll face the Seattle Seahawks on Wild Card Weekend.
Postseason play is familiar territory for the 49ers franchise. This year marks the 28th time in franchise history that San Francisco has found themselves in the playoff mix. But how has the team fared when they enter the playoffs as No. 2 in the NFC? See below for every postseason run from the San Francisco 49ers as the No. 2 seed.
How many times have the 49ers been the No. 2 seed in the playoffs?
The 49ers have made seven appearances in the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Super Bowl era. Their playoff record as the No. 2 seed stands at 9-6, with one Super Bowl victory (Super Bowl XXII).
The most common occurrence for San Francisco in this position, however, has been a season ending in heartbreak. Of the seven appearances as the No. 2 seed, three of those playoff runs have ended in a conference championship loss, and one in a Super Bowl loss.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the 49ers playoff runs as the No. 2 seed.
1970 Season: Lost NFC Championship Game
The first time San Francisco found themselves second in the NFC came 26 years after the organization was founded. The NFL, however, was using a predetermined postseason schedule from 1970-1974 following the AFL-NFL merger.
While the league was experiencing many changes, the 49ers were finally getting a glimpse of stability within the organization. They entered the 1970 season healthy, with much of the roster returning from the year before. The most notable piece of the puzzle that got healthy was quarterback John Brodie, who experienced numerous shoulder issues in 1969. The injury now appeared to have no effect on Brodie as he finished the year with a 93.8 passer rating after posting a 74.9 the season prior.
The team strung together impressive wins throughout the course of the season, bringing them just one win shy of the playoff picture heading into their final game. The only thing standing between San Francisco and the postseason was right across the water, as the 49ers played their first-ever matchup against the Oakland Raiders — the inaugural “Battle of the Bay”. The game, however, wasn’t much of a battle, as the 49ers steamrolled the Raiders 38-7 and secured their second franchise appearance in the playoffs.
The Divisional Round saw the 49ers upset the Minnesota Vikings in thrilling fashion. After Minnesota gained an early 7-0 advantage, San Francisco would post 17 unanswered points. Brodie weathered the storm of the Vikings “Purple People Eaters”, throwing for 201 yards with one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown. The 49ers secured their first ever playoff victory, 17-14.
Their Lombardi dreams, however, would be wiped away by a team with loads of postseason experience, the Dallas Cowboys. The electric weapons of tight end Mike Ditka and running back Dan Reeves would stifle the San Francisco defense. Brodie and his offense simply couldn’t keep up, ending their playoff run with a 17-10 loss.
1983 Season: Lost NFC Championship Game
After winning their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history in 1981, the 1982 season proved to be one of the worst 49ers teams in remembrance. The team that was 13-3 fell to 3-6 (strike-shortened season) and lost all of their five home games. Head Coach Bill Walsh entered the offseason pondering whether or not he wished to return the following year. After eventually deciding to remain with the organization, however, the 1983 team desired redemption.
Despite a Week 1 loss to open the season, the 49ers would go on a four-game win streak, scoring an average of 37 points per game and reviving confidence that the franchise could return to its winning ways. The emergence of rookie running back Roger Craig and the offseason acquisition of running back Wendell Tyler brought much-needed life to the backfield. The defense was refurbished in the offseason and proving to no longer be a liability on the football field. As the regular season came to a close, San Francisco found themselves at 10-6 and No. 2 in the conference.
The 49ers managed to squeeze by the Detroit Lions in the divisional round, setting up a daunting matchup against Washington, the defending Super Bowl Title holders, in the NFC Championship.
Washington quarterback Joe Theismann got his team off to a remarkable start, allowing them to hold a 21-0 lead entering the fourth quarter. 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, however, would not go down without a fight. Montana began the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass to Mike Wilson, followed by a stunning 76-yard score by Freddie Solomon. One more touchdown pass to Wilson left everyone in shock, as the 49ers managed to even the scoreboard.
On Washington’s final drive, Theismann heaved a pass to receiver Art Monk that sailed well over Monk’s head on 4th down. However, a highly controversial penalty called on San Francisco defensive back Eric Wright kept the drive alive, allowing Washington to kick a field goal for the victory.
1988 Season: Won Super Bowl XXII
By the time 1988 rolled around, the 49ers now had two Super Bowl victories under their belt. With the previous two seasons ending in divisional round losses, questions were now looming regarding the longevity of Joe Montana. On top of that, an evident controversy was emerging between him and quarterback Steve Young.
The 49ers started the season 2-0 following high-scoring victories over New Orleans and Miami. Injuries to Montana, however, would allow Young to see some time at quarterback. While he had some early struggles, Young began to see success as the season went on. The success, however, was not enough for Bill Walsh to replace Montana. “Joe Cool” would once again lead the team to the No. 2 spot in the NFC.
San Francisco simply dominated in their playoff run, getting revenge on the Minnesota Vikings, who had knocked them out the year before in the divisional round, before beating down on Chicago in an icy NFC Championship, 28-3.
The 49ers would meet the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXII, entering the matchup as heavy favorites. Despite a slow start, a 93-yard touchdown from Cincinnati’s Stanford Jennings on a kickoff return would shake both teams back to life. The 49ers responded with an immediate touchdown drive, as the two teams went back-and-forth.
With time running out, the 49ers offense put together a historically good offensive drive, remembered by critical completions to Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. Finally, Montana would find wide receiver John Taylor in the middle of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown, cementing one of the most memorable plays in 49ers history.
1993 Season: Lost NFC Championship Game
Four seasons would go by until San Francisco found themselves in the No. 2 seed once again. This time around, it was Head Coach George Seifert running the show with Steve Young starting as the team’s official successor to Montana. Seifert made the decision to let the legendary quarterback go in the offseason, trading him to Kansas City.
Young’s debut, however, would go south fast. He fractured his thumb in a preseason game, sidelining him for the first four games. Backup quarterback Steve Bono entered the scene, captaining the team to a 2-2 start.
After Young’s return, the 49ers found themselves at 3-3 in mid-October. Knowing they had to turn things around rapidly, a six-game winning streak served the purpose. By the time the regular season finished up, it appeared Steve Young had finally allowed 49ers fans to move on from Joe Montana, even breaking Montana’s franchise record for single-season passing yards.
The 49ers met a gritty New York Giants team in the first round of the playoffs. The star-studded roster of names like Phil Simms, Chris Calloway and Lawrence Taylor, however, was no match for the likes of Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Bill Romanowski. The team steamrolled New York, 44-3.
The 49ers, however, would need to get past their rival Cowboys in order to secure a spot in the Super Bowl. Dallas had knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs one year prior, and this time around, they would do so in an even more dominant fashion.
The Cowboys diced up the 49ers defense early, jumping ahead to a 28-7 lead. Despite efforts to mount a comeback, Dallas would steal the NFC crown with a final score of 38-21.
1995 Season: Lost Divisional Round Game
The defending Super Bowl champions entered 1995 with lofty expectations. Despite losing cornerback Deion Sanders to Dallas and running back Ricky Watters to Philadelphia, the majority of the team was left unchanged.
Seifert’s team started the season with three commanding wins, signifying that another championship season could be in the works. A mid-season injury to Steve Young’s throwing arm, however, was a slight bump in the road. Backup Elvis Grbac took over, trying to keep the season alive without their star.
Grbac held down the fort, going 3-2 in his five starts, with one of his victories coming against their rival Cowboys. When Young returned, the 49ers were able to cruise to an 11-5 season, finding themselves bound for the playoffs once again.
After a week of rest, Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers came to town to challenge San Francisco in the Divisional Round. Former 49ers quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren was now leading Green Bay in through the playoffs, and he would not enter the matchup unprepared. Holmgren even went as far as rewriting his team’s entire offensive vocabulary to ensure that San Francisco could not recognize his terminology.
The precaution proved successful, as the Packers grabbed an early 21-0 lead and never let go. The 49ers attempts to trim the deficit were in vain, as the Packers left the Bay victorious, 27-17.
2011 Season: Lost NFC Championship Game
Almost two decades would go by until San Francisco ended the season as No. 2 in the NFC once again. This seeding, however, came at a more momentous time than the others.
The 49ers had missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons prior to 2011. Now, in Jim Harbaugh’s first season as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, it seemed the former Stanford coach could restore the franchise to its old ways. How did he do it? Well, building a defense that does not allow a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games of the season can’t hurt. The team finished the season having only allowed three rushing scores all season — the fewest allowed by any team since 1978.
The 49ers 2011 season was simply thrilling for the franchise, with a mid-season 8-game winning streak and a final record of 13-3. They would finish atop the NFC West for the first time since 2002. Now the 49ers would welcome the New Orleans Saints to Candlestick Park in a long-overdue appearance in the playoffs.
In his first playoff appearance, Alex Smith would not disappoint. The 49ers took a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter, but New Orleans marched back quickly to trail by just 3 points at halftime. With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, the Saints surged ahead to a 32-29 lead.
With just 9 seconds remaining, Smith completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis to give the 49ers a win in the playoffs and a magical moment in franchise history.
However, the moment would soon pass, as the 49ers welcomed the New York Giants to the Bay for an NFC title game. Despite the thrilling, gutsy performance displayed by both teams, the final moments were ones that 49ers fans likely want etched from their memory.
Offensive firepower and defensive grit were evident from both the Giants and 49ers, forcing the game to go to overtime. As the overtime period began, the offenses sputtered and both teams exchanged punts.
As the Giants punted the ball away to San Francisco on a 4th and 13, 49ers receiver Kyle Williams would muff the punt, allowing New York to take advantage and win the conference crown.
2012 Season: Lost Super Bowl XLVI
After coming so close to the big game in 2011, the 49ers wasted no time returning to dominance the following season. Their 6-2 start was a direct reflection of an enforcing defense and running game that frustrated every team in the NFL. Running back Frank Gore was having another career year, in which he would finish the season with 1,214 yards and a Pro-Bowl selection.
But it wouldn’t be the NFL without a touch of adversity. In the 49ers ninth game of the season, Alex Smith would suffer a concussion. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who saw a bit of playing time in 2011, would now get the call to QB1.
Kaepernick’s starting debut was spectacular, and he finished the night 16-of-23 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. After witnessing the potential of the young athlete, Harbaugh made the decision to roll with Kaepernick going forward. The 24-year-old led the team to a 5-2 record in his seven starts, putting the 49ers at 11-4-1 heading into the playoffs.
The 2012 playoff run was a memorable one for San Francisco. The story of the divisional round was Kaepernick’s legs, as he ran all over Green Bay for a quarterback-record 181 yards. While the game stayed pretty even through the first half, a 56-yard touchdown run from Kaepernick allowed the 49ers to pull away, sending the Packers home with a 41-35 loss.
Now in Atlanta for the NFC Championship, the 49ers were eager to return to their first Super Bowl since 1994. The eagerness, however, did not translate onto the field. The Falcons surged ahead with two Julio Jones touchdown passes and a field goal to take a 17-0 lead. The team from the Bay would then kick things into gear, holding the Falcons scoreless in the second half and putting up 14 points to steal the conference crown, 28-24.
In his second season, Jim Harbaugh had taken the 49ers from pity to prominence. He now prepared the team to take on his brother, John Harbaugh, and the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVI. It was the electric offense of Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore against the heavy-hitting defense of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. The incredibly efficient Joe Flacco and Anquan Boldin against the ruthless Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman.
Baltimore got to work early, as their offense worked its magic and sent the Ravens into halftime up 21-6. A 108-yard kickoff return from Jacoby Jones to open the second half didn’t exactly help, either. San Francisco, however, charged ahead, with three consecutive scores to bring them within striking distance, 28-23. But as time ran out, the 49ers could not muster a championship-winning drive. San Francisco would suffer its first Super Bowl loss in franchise history, 34-31.
When: Sunday, February 12, 2023
Where: State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
TV Channel: FOX