Losing the NFC Championship still hurts, perhaps even more for those too young to remember all the other times. Sounds like the experience drove Aldon Smith to drink (and drive, allegedly).
However, the 49ers have lost a lot of NFC Championship Games. Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the New York Giants was the eighth time they’ve lost the penultimate contest. With a 5-0 record in Super Bowls and a 5-8 record in NFC Title games, it seems that for the 49ers, getting there is more than half the battle.
One of the problems for the 49ers, if we’re getting greedy, is that their dominant periods seem to coincide with the times when the NFC is the stronger conference — this year included. Starting in the season that the 49ers won their first Super Bowl (1981), the NFC won 15 of 16 Super Bowls, including 13 in a row. When the AFC was by far the better conference, the 49ers were worried about finishing .500, let alone reaching the NFC Championship.
Today the NFC, with teams like the Packers and Saints — let alone the Niners and Giants, the teams that beat New Orleans and Green Bay a couple weeks ago — looks to be the superior conference yet again. It’s all the more painful for 49ers fans, as the Giants (a far more complete team than New England) have a great chance to win Super Bowl XLVI and capture the NFC’s third straight Super Bowl.
What are the 49ers’ chances of making it four in a row for the NFC next year (provided the Giants take care of business)? Not bad, if history can teach us anything.
After seven previous NFC Championship Game losses, the 49ers made the playoffs the following season six times. They had a winning record in each of the seven bounce-back years, finishing with a combined record of 78-29-1 (.727 winning percentage, which equates to a 16-game schedule record of 11.6-4.4).
In the playoffs in years following the heartbreak of an NFC Championship loss, the 49ers lost two Divisional Round games, lost two NFC Titles and won two Super Bowls. Also of note: last Sunday’s loss marked the seventh time in eight NFC Championship losses that the winning team came from the NFC East. On second thought, let’s pretend I didn’t mention that.
The key takeaway: when the 49ers earned their way to NFC Championship Games in the past, it wasn’t a fluke. The only time they’ve reached an Conference title game and finished with a losing record the year after was in 1982, when they finished 3-6 in a strike-shortened season after winning their first Super Bowl. That year Bill Walsh was very frustrated with his team, who he felt enjoyed the spoils of victory too much. He almost retired that year, but luckily for Ed Debartolo and 49ers fans everywhere he stayed and laid the groundwork for an unprecedented 16 straight years of 10 wins or more during the regular season.
It’s far too early to predict consistent excellence from these 49ers, and it’s probably harder to stay on top during the salary cap era than it was during the 1980s (although the Patriots seem to be having luck in that department). Plus, to draw the correlation between Walsh and Jim Harbaugh would be foolish and more than a tad unfair to Harbaugh, even if they both coached at Stanford and took 49ers squads that finished 6-10 to 13-3 a year later.
The Niners could implode in 2012, but history tells us that’s doubtful. Even though the 49ers squandered a great opportunity when they lost the NFC Championship at home to the Giants with arguably the best defense in franchise history (well, the best front seven, anyway) … there’s no reason why they can’t come back strong next year and for seasons to come.