While the story of Sunday’s NFC Championship was certainly the 49ers losing their third- and fourth-string quarterbacks, the defense certainly didn’t do itself any favors.
Even though Brock Purdy was injured on the 49ers’ first offensive drive of the game and Josh Johnson struggled under center, San Francisco’s defense seemed like it would keep the team close.
Alas, a bevy of self-inflicted wounds by the defense undermined any efforts of an epic upset, as the 49ers helped the Eagles score touchdowns in the 31-7 Philadelphia victory.
The 49ers defense settled down after allowing an opening-drive touchdown and forced three punts. Jalen Hurts and the Eagles defense were suddenly grounded. Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Nick Bosa made his presence felt and nearly sacked Hurts for a safety at one point.
"Felt like we shut 'em down for the next three series," Shanahan said. "Felt like we had momentum, had some good stuff going. I think the penalties really got to our defense. I think a number of them were self-inflicted that we gotta do better on."
With 8:29 left in the second quarter, San Francisco pulled even on a remarkable 23-yard touchdown run by Christian McCaffrey. With Johnson under center, the Niners felt like they had a chance at that point.
Philadelphia would score the final 24 points in the game, though, with all three touchdown drives aided by untimely penalties on San Francisco. The end of the first half really put the 49ers in a hole.
Midway through the second quarter, Niners nickel back Jimmie Ward held A.J. Brown in the slot on third down to extend the drive. A few minutes later, a defensive holding call on Mooney Ward gave the Eagles a fresh set of downs at the 18-yard line and they punched it in for a touchdown two plays later.
The first-half woes weren’t over. Johnson fumbled a shotgun snap on the ensuing drive to set up the Eagles with a short field at the 30-yard-line with 1:11 remaining and two timeouts. A face mask penalty by Dre Greenlaw brought the Eagles down to the 10-yard line and they scored on the next play for a lightning-quick strike before halftime.
"That's what got them going," Shanahan said. "You're going against the best offense in the league, you can't make those mistakes."
The 49ers really put a nail in their own coffin midway through the third quarter, when special teamer Jordan Mason was flagged for roughing the punter to extend a drive. Talanoa Hufanga also got flagged for a late tackle out-of-bounds as the 49ers’ frustration mounted, before Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts punched it in to make it an insurmountable 21-point lead.
Coupled with a one-dimensional offense after the quarterback injuries, the clock ticked on the 49ers season.
"They were out there pretty much alone in the second half," Shanahan said of the defense. "Our offense was just able to run the ball and we weren't able to get some big ones. They had a pretty uphill battle against a good team. I'm real proud of those guys."
Johnson also got whistled for three delay of game calls. In all, the 49ers racked up 11 penalties for 81 yards.
It’s a bitter way for the season to end, especially for the vaunted 49ers defense that was the league’s top-ranked unit. Twelve straight wins all for naught.
"When you win for so long, you forget how losing feels," linebacker Fred Warner said.