The 49ers opened the 1997 season with high hopes. With new coach Steve Mariucci and half back Garrison Hearst, the 49ers seemed to have shored up their one major weakness from the season before. Also, additions Kevin Gogan to the offensive line and Rod Woodson to the defense were clear improvements over last season's roster. However, in the first game of the season at Tampa Bay the greatest disaster the 49ers could have imagined occurred: both quarterback Steve Young and receiver Jerry Rice went down with injuries. Rice appeared to be out for the season with a serious knee injury and Young, with yet another concussion, had discussed and considered retirement.
However, Young eventually came back, as did Rice for one and a half quarters (before getting another unrelated injury to his knee), and the team, with the league's number one defense leading the way, pulled together and finished strongly at 13-3.
Towards the end of the season things appeared to be going well for the 49er's postseason prospects. However, in the second to last game of the season Jerry Rice was injured again and deemed out for the playoffs. Similarly, the team's offensive heart for the season, running back Garrison Hearst, had a broken collar bone through the post season and didn't return to full health prior to the end of the season.
Despite not having either their leading receiver or their starting running back, the 49ers were able to make it to their 7th NFC championship in 10 years. However, not having an elite receiver or solid running back showed glaringly in their loss to the Packers in the conference championship (Hearst returned, but his injury was clearly still a problem as he only played a few ineffective snaps).
NFC Divisional Playoff - January 3, 1998 (Sat)