The word juggernaut is used plenty in sports. Often wastefully, sometimes incorrectly and invariably with a liberal dose of hype attached.
The San Francisco 49ers are a juggernaut right now, and they showed it on Sunday night when things got scrappy and messy and rarely went to plan. Doing so in these circumstances says more than doing so in bullying blowouts that formed a large part of what is now a 12-game winning streak.
In the NFC Divisional Round, when the Dallas Cowboys defensive front wreaked havoc, when mistakes crept and never truly went away, when it became a slugfest and a battle of wills, lots of little things added up to form the result. But one reality held firm more than anything.
The Niners have forgotten how to lose.
“You work so hard to get to these points, these situations, all we could think about was winning that game,” head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters. “Once we did, it is fun for a little bit, but once you get in the locker room it is … on to the next one. We are not really reflecting on anything yet.”
And so a return to the NFC Championship for the third time in four years beckons, and it doesn’t much matter now how it looked like on the way there.
That San Francisco’s electrifying playmakers were held in check for large periods at Levi’s Stadium and that offensive momentum proved devilishly hard to raise. That defensive stoutness was there, but that the team’s prowess in stifling the Cowboys was flattered somewhat by Dak Prescott’s errant hand.
That even the drive which turned the game was a collection of narrow escapes. It started with six minutes left in the third quarter with a Dallas offside call, was highlighted by a George Kittle catch that was undeniably brilliant but did bounce off his facemask, was propped up by two defensive holding calls, survived a Trevon Diggs dropped interception and ended with Christian McCaffrey running the ball in.
‘Everyone did their part’ — Brock Purdy and George Kittle speak with Erin Andrews
Erin Andrews spoke with 49ers tight end George Kittle and quarterback Brock Purdy after San Francisco’s playoff win against the Dallas Cowboys.
The true power of winning all those games manifested itself in the minds of the 49ers players more so than their actions on the field. A team that knows nothing other than to win doesn’t get that familiar old sinking feeling when things begin to go awry.
The confidence is always there that matters will work themselves out. They have indeed worked themselves out, ever since a start to the season that read 3-4 and now seems like a lifetime ago. They worked themselves out again here.
No one had the game of their life. Brock Purdy didn’t falter, but there were times when he looked like a rookie quarterback, if not one selected at the very tail of the draft. Deebo Samuel, McCaffrey, Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk all had moments, but all have had bigger days.
The key plays on defense had more to do with Prescott’s missteps than flashes of true inspiration. Doesn’t matter, though, does it? Not now.
The Super Bowl odds will be tight, but make no mistake, the Niners will be a popular pick and either on the cusp of favoritism or right at the top of the list. Beating the Philadelphia Eagles on the road next weekend (3:00 p.m. ET next Sunday on FOX and the FOX Sports app) will be no easy task, but it perhaps feels a bit simpler when you’re presently the most feared team in the entire league.
It is hard to recall precisely how things were and felt, all the way back on Oct. 23, the last time the Niners lost, a 44-23 drubbing at home to the Kansas City Chiefs. Or even further back than that, when the other three regular-season defeats came against the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons with a combined record of 15-36.
When Trey Lance (remember him?) was under center for the first of those and Jimmy Garoppolo for the others. When McCaffrey was a Carolina Panther and people kept wondering if the 49ers were ever going to get their act together.
The act is in place now. They are a team that can be slowed, but probably not fully thwarted. They are working with a system that is forgiving of mistakes — to a point — and incessant in its pressure.
They are working on a streak that now feels never-ending, and with a mindset that contains the sort of expectant arrogance championship teams require.
They are, quite simply, a juggernaut, resilient enough to see off the bad times and skilled enough to look unstoppable when it all works neatly.
Only the best teams in the league remain, but it will take something special to stop them. Because juggernauts, by design, just keep going — whatever obstacles fall into their path.
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