The 49ers were deemed Super Bowl LVII favorites by many NFL pundits and analysts before falling to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
But San Francisco essentially had no shot at making it to the big game after quarterback Brock Purdy went down with a torn UCL in the first quarter against Philadelphia, only for his backup, Josh Johnson, to exit with a concussion shortly after.
While there were plenty of "what-ifs" in the 49ers' quarterback-less loss to the Eagles, Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez believes one thing is for certain.
"I thought, honestly, they would be playing in [the Super Bowl]," Gonzalez told NBC Sports Bay Area's Jennifer Lee Chan at Super Bowl Radio Row last week in Phoenix. "I still think they would have if Purdy didn’t get hurt."
Purdy had yet to lose as the 49ers' starter coming into the NFC title game, surrounded by offensive weapons like Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and anchored by the NFL's No. 1 defense.
But they faced their biggest challenge of the season in Philadelphia, whose ferocious pass rush proved to be the game's difference-maker when linebacker Haason Reddick tore into Purdy behind the line of scrimmage. The strip sack and ensuing fumble recovery by the Eagles were the turning point in more ways than one, as Purdy's throwing arm was rendered useless for the remainder of the game.
"I think [the 49ers] had the most complete roster towards the end of the season. Philly’s roster was incredible as well," Gonzalez told Chan. "It’s just sad that Purdy didn’t really get a chance to play in that football game. I think the game obviously would have been way, way closer than it was, and I still think San Francisco might have had a chance because their team was just loaded from top to bottom with incredibly talented players."
San Francisco 49ers
Samuel feels the same way, telling Adam Schein of "Mad Dog Sports Radio" the NFC Championship Game would have had a much different outcome than a 31-7 San Francisco loss had Purdy not been hurt.
"Our defense was doing what they were supposed to, and I feel like if Brock was in at quarterback and how our offense moves, I don't think it would have been close, if that makes sense," Samuel told Schein at Radio Row. "It's not sour grapes at all, it's just what I see every day. I'm not salty at all, I just speak facts."
The 49ers fought through plenty of adversity during the 2022 NFL season, from starting quarterback Trey Lance breaking his ankle in Week 2 to his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, breaking his foot in Week 13.
For Purdy to have stepped into a starting role so efficiently was unexpected, and San Francisco still had a championship-caliber roster despite it all.
But now, it's time to think about the "what-ifs" next season could hold.