The reply text, from George Kittle, arrived a little more than 90 minutes after Sunday’s game, in all its sarcastic splendor.
“Not stressful at all,” it read, with a sweating emoji for emphasis.
Kittle, the San Francisco 49ers’ star tight end and emotional driving force, had just helped his team accomplish something epic. Down 17-0 on the road to the rival Los Angeles Rams, a team looking to clinch an NFC West title and lock down the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed, the Niners were on the wrong side of a "body bag" showdown and on the brink of playoff elimination.
With polarizing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo struggling to play through a painful injury to the thumb on his throwing hand, a whole lot of 49ers fans — and not just the masses who helped pack SoFi Stadium — were throwing up their hands in surrender.
Speaking of surrender: This is the bittersweet time of year when this column traditionally bids farewell to many of our victory-deficient friends — 18 of them, in this case, thanks to the 2020 expansion of the NFL’s playoff field to 14 teams. Shortly before halftime of Sunday’s game in L.A., and again in the final minutes, it sure looked like San Francisco would be one of them.
The 49ers have had their dispiriting moments this season, but last Sunday, their fighting spirit was undeniable. Never was that more apparent than with 1:27 remaining in regulation when the Niners, trailing 24-17, took over at their own 12-yard-line.
What happened next was coming through in the clutch personified: Garoppolo, on the first three plays, completed passes to three different receivers for a combined 69 yards. His 14-yard throw to Jauan Jennings got the Niners into the end zone with 26 seconds remaining, with Robbie Gould’s extra point tying the game. In overtime, Garoppolo’s 34-yard pass to Jennings moved San Francisco into field-goal range, with Gould ultimately connecting on a 24-yard field goal, and Ambry Thomas iced the 27-24 victory by intercepting a Matthew Stafford pass.
On those two pivotal drives, Garoppolo didn’t merely help save the season. He also shattered a narrative, showcasing his cool under fire and validating coach Kyle Shanahan’s decision to start him ahead of No. 3 overall draft pick Trey Lance. Quite possibly, this postseason — beginning with Sunday’s road game against the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys — will be Garoppolo’s last hurrah in a 49ers uniform. Whatever happens, he’ll walk into the locker room next season as a man who has proven he can fight through adversity and elevate when it matters most.
And that’s one of the coolest things about the upcoming slate of playoff games: the potential each one carries for a dramatic flipping of the script. Already, in the final weeks of the season, we’ve seen that happen on numerous fronts.
That whole thing about the Raiders fizzling out at the finish in recent seasons and Derek Carr’s alleged shortcomings in such situations? Over and done.
The Titans’ inability to thrive without the centerpiece of their offense, Derrick Henry, in the lineup? Discredited (though, scarily, they may get Henry back for the playoffs).
Ben Roethlisberger staggering to the finish in Pittsburgh, clearly having hung on too long? Not so fast — the future Hall of Famer somehow snuck into the postseason party, by the grace of the football gods.
Now, so much is on the table: The Bengals’ inevitable January gut punch, the Bills’ offensive imbalance as a fatal flaw, Stafford is not a winner stigma, the Eagles’ perceived lack of legitimacy. Any or all of those narratives could be smashed to smithereens by Valentine’s Day, with missed calls and tipped balls and so many other hard-to-predict forces impacting the equation.
For now, here’s a dirty dozen’s worth (plus two) of inspired inquiries which reflect our current view of the NFL’s power dynamic. And the only thing we can guarantee is that the teams in the first and fourth positions will unquestionably reappear in next week’s scaled-down rankings.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4, LW: 3): After helping his friend Rob Gronkowski reach a $500,000 incentive in Sunday’s game, was Tom Brady at all tempted to honor his estranged friend Antonio Brown by stripping off his jersey and doing jumping jacks in the end zone?
3. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, LW: 4): Am I the only one who has the distinct impression that Patrick Mahomes is about to crank up his game about three notches?
4. Tennessee Titans (12-5, LW: 5): If the best running back in football, by far, has three good games in him, could there be a parade in Nashville?
5. Dallas Cowboys (12-5, LW: 6): Is any rivalry more fun than Cowboys-49ers — and why do I get the feeling Sunday’s playoff game will be another classic?
6. Buffalo Bills (11-6, LW: 7): What if the Bills win the rubber match with the Patriots while running the ball only three times?
8. Los Angeles Rams (12-5, LW: 2): What aged more poorly — Sean McVay’s awkward, end-zone high five with Tyler Higbee, or that whole “Matthew Stafford has solved the Rams’ turnover problem” storyline?
9. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7, LW: 9): How many Bengals fans have PTSD from The Meltdown at Paul Brown six years ago?
10. Arizona Cardinals (11-6, LW: 8): After suffering their fifth consecutive home defeat Sunday, were the Cardinals happy they’ll open the playoffs in L.A.?
11. Las Vegas Raiders (10-7, LW: 14): With the game on the line, how many quarterbacks do you trust more than Derek Carr right now?
13. New England Patriots (10-7, LW: 12): When Mac Jones said his performance against the Dolphins last Sunday was “super embarrassing,” was he trying to hype up the stupidly named “Super Wild Card Weekend”?