By Amy Tennery
MIAMI (Reuters) - With a ferocious running game, the top-rated defense in the NFL and one of the league's highest-performing tight ends, it would seem little surprise that the San Francisco 49ers have reached this year's Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Little surprise, that is, until you take a good look at their previous season in the NFC.
The Niners' nightmarish 2018 ended with a four-win and 12-loss record that included a six-game mid-season losing streak after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in the team's week-three matchup against, coincidentally, the Chiefs.
"You go through a long season like that and it’s disappointing," head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters on Tuesday.
"It’s very tough in this league anywhere when you only win four games and most places it’s very hard with all the scrutiny and everything for people not to turn against each other a little bit."
Tough, perhaps, but not impossible - or so the men in red and gold proved, according to Shanahan.
"We thought it was so impressive how hard guys worked each week, how we felt even though we only won four games, we were in every game to where at the end of the year we were very proud of that," he said.
The mindset carried over into the 2019 season, which saw the Niners flatten the competition on an eight-game winning streak to start the year, along the way developing the reputation as the league's most fearsome defense.
"I was just really impressed with the people in our room," said Shanahan. "Every game we went into it, whether I was preaching it or not, those guys always felt like the underdog and were always ready to go out there and compete."
Of course, San Francisco is no stranger to adversity in recent seasons, having lost nine straight games to start the 2017 season, which they eventually wrapped with a 6-10 record.
For Garoppolo, who told reporters on Tuesday that a year ago he was "learning to run again" after the previous season's ACL tear, the road to Super Bowl LIV may have been the toughest.
"Just starting to run again, that was pretty difficult," said Garoppolo. "Just getting through that initial first couple of months, the mental hurdles just accepting the injury was pretty difficult."
Another mental hurdle came in the form of criticism from those who doubted the lackluster 4-12 Niners could polish themselves into a high-calibre team the following season.
"Whenever you’ve got people hating on you as a team it’s always a good thing because they’re not going to hate on a bad team," said Garoppolo.
"Starting from the beginning when people were predicting us to (have) two and whatever, three and whatever (records), and getting to where we’re at now, we’ve come a long way.
"It’s only made this group tighter, though, with all that criticism."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Ken Ferris)