Saturday at 4:30 EST marks the 49ers first playoff game in 10 years and I’ve been paying my dues at sports bars across the United States waiting for it. I watched them bottom out at 2-14, draft a QB #1 overall who wasn’t named Aaron Rodgers, wade through offensive coordinators like selections at the Golden Corral buffet, grimace as that #1 QB struggled to get on the right side of mediocrity, kind-of-enjoyed-in-a-sick-way Mike Nolan’s attempts to wear a suit and say the word “standpoint” every 6.2 seconds, saw how far being a Tony Robbins-ish motivational speaker can take you as a coach if you played football once, and buried my head in my hands as the team president constantly ran his mouth about how good the team was in spite of their results.
And then Jim Harbaugh drove up the road from Stanford like a certain 49ers coach of old and things started changing. The #1 quarterback was somehow still in town despite having every reason in the world to be a thousand other places. The team president mostly kept quiet and went about the business of being pretty damned cool in spite of the fact that a) he runs an NFL football team at the age of 30 and b) that almost certainly makes him a massive douche. The team with all those good, young players who spent the previous 5 or so years languishing in frustration and occasional ineptitude was just sitting there waiting for someone whose head didn’t consistently get dragged down by a giant Jesus chain.
And now, this. The 49ers are 13-3 and hosting a playoff game against the awfully mighty-looking New Orleans Saints and their record-shattering quarterback Drew Brees and his Birthmark of Offensive Knowledge. You don’t come back from 10 years of losing this quickly and regain all your stature at once, and the doubts are prevalent as to whether the 49ers have a shot at winning the game. The folks in Vegas, who are smarter than any and all of us when it comes to figuring these kinds of things out, have the Saints as 4-point favorites, and when you factor in the default 3 points they give to home teams, that means they expect the Fighting Cajun-Food-Eaters-slash-Tittie-Flashers to triumph by a touchdown.
As for me, I’m just happy that there is a game to look forward to. The last 10 years have led me to be more interested in the NFL Draft than I ever cared to be, if only because I was already wondering who the 49ers might get sometime in mid-October. I think the 49ers have a much better chance than people are giving them credit for, and I say that for two reasons, the latter the more important.
One, the 49ers are secretly the better team, and they’re playing at home. The prevailing wisdom in the NFL now is that everything revolves around the quarterback and nothing else; if that is, in fact, the case, then the 49ers are in trouble because the difference between Breesus and Alex Smith is impossible to quantify. However, with the possible exception of wide receiver (and because of injuries even it is much closer than I figured), the 49ers are equal or better in quite literally every other area of football according to statistics, eyeballs, instincts, and common sense. I’m fascinated most by learning just how important quarterbacks are, because if the Saints win this game it will likely be because Brees does what he does, which is be better than everyone else.
But the second reason that I think the 49ers have a legitimate shot is because their coach, I believe, is one of those deranged psychopaths who is not only fueled by competition but completely and utterly consumed by it in everything he does. Watch this video of Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech and enjoy the spectacle of a man so gripped by the arena of competitive athletics that, in spite of the fact that everyone on Earth acknowledges him as the greatest basketball player of all-time, he spends his speech talking shit to role players and people who he routinely bested in his career. He is so far beyond the line of ruthless competitor and sits proudly at the head of the table of world-class assholes who make it their mission in life to remind everyone that they are better than them.
Jim Harbaugh strikes me as one of those people. There has been news this week of some sort of “you broke a gentlemen’s agreement that may or may not exist so we’re going to blitz you in the first preseason game after a long lockout” tiff between Harbaugh and Saints coach Sean Payton, himself a wildly aggressive dick of the highest order. I’m fairly confident that Harbaugh has seen the standings and examined the scenarios and expected this collision was coming for months now, and I’m also fairly confident that somewhere in his burning soul lies a spiritual effigy of Payton that will be slowly strangled to death with a disgusting spiritual grin as Harbaugh spiritually drains the life right out of the said spiritual body. If Jim Harbaugh hasn’t been thinking about fisticuffs with Sean Payton for the better part of two months now, that’s only because he’s deviously thinking of something much more sinister than fisticuffs.
Win or lose, this season has been terrific for the 49ers and for myself as a fan of the team. I was still in college the last time they were here, and both of our lives have been an endless siege of misery and disappointment (fine, I haven’t been THAT bad). But things are looking up now, and if nothing else it’s refreshing to know that all those years spent watching them struggle have paid off in the form of the always important “Jesus, his 49ers shirt looks old and shitty so I guess he’s not a bandwagon fan” sentiment from people that you will never speak to in your lifetime. So thanks, 49ers. Always remember: you can’t spell “it took several years of putting up with mortifying play and questionable coaching to build this team into a contender but now they have a realistic chance to make multiple playoff appearances and Super Bowls over the next half decade” without “basic respectability.”