SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For the San Francisco 49ers to bounce back from their first loss of the season, they had to do something they hadn't done since 2011. After falling 16 points behind the Arizona Cardinals, the Niners authored their biggest comeback in eight years to win 36-26 and improve to 9-1 on the season at Levi's Stadium on Sunday.
The emotional win came less than a week after a disappointing overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks under similar circumstances on Monday Night Football.
"It's exhausting, whether you're a head coach or a coordinator," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "It's exhausting for me. I'm sure it's exhausting for our players. I know it's exhausting for my wife watching it and I'm sure it's exhausting for all the fans. That's an intense game that goes back and forth. I think that's why everyone loves this sport. It's a lot more fun for us when it's easier, but after the game it's always so fun when you go through stuff like that and it's not perfect and you still find a way to win."
The Niners' path to victory Sunday was one they haven't traveled in quite some time. Before Sunday, they had lost 35 consecutive regular-season games when trailing by 16 or more points. Their last such win had been against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. Their victory Sunday was also San Francisco's largest comeback win including the postseason since trailing the Atlanta Falcons by 17 in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.
To get over the hump, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had to deliver one of the biggest drives of his career. The Niners started at their 35 with 2:02 to go and drove to the game-winning touchdown, a 25-yard pass to running back Jeff Wilson Jr. with 31 seconds remaining. The 49ers scored a defensive touchdown on a 4-yard fumble return by D.J. Reed Jr. with no time remaining to seal the victory.
The touchdown from Garoppolo to Wilson capped a huge day for Garoppolo that was slightly marred by a pair of costly interceptions but ultimately ended with the winning touchdown to the seldom-used Wilson.
Before the touchdown, Garoppolo hit tight end Ross Dwelley -- himself an unsung hero who scored two touchdowns in the game -- for a 3-yard gain on third-and-3. The play was ruled a first down on the field but went to a booth review.
As he awaited the result of the review, Shanahan said he went through every possible scenario, including his call on fourth down as he planned to go for it.
"It was a very stressful discussion," Shanahan said. "We thought about everything in that long minute and a half that it took."
One of those options was running what the Niners call a "choice" route and plugging in Wilson, who had not played an offensive snap all game to that point, to run it. According to Shanahan, Wilson ran it the best in practice during the week, so even though he was seen doing high knees in the huddle to warm his legs before the play, he was the guy Shanahan wanted in there.
It paid off as Wilson beat his man with a quick angle to the middle of the field as the Cardinals ran an all-out blitz and Garoppolo laid the ball over the middle. Wilson hauled it in and raced to his first career receiving touchdown.
"I just know to be ready when my number is called," Wilson said. "That is something that my coach has stressed to me, even my teammates and other running backs in the room. They stress that to me all day as well. No matter what, just be ready. That is our motto for all of us."
In Garoppolo's case, it was the second time in as many games against Arizona in which he was asked to carry the freight for the offense. Like in the previous meeting on Oct. 31, the Cardinals sold out to stop the run and tried to make Garoppolo beat them.
Also like in that meeting, Garoppolo delivered. He finished 34-of-45 for 424 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 115.4. In the process, he became the first player in franchise history with multiple four-touchdown-pass games against the same team in a season and joined Joe Montana and Steve Young as the only Niners quarterbacks to throw for at least 400 yards and four touchdowns in a game.
It was Garoppolo's fifth career fourth quarter or overtime comeback win and second this season. The game-winning touchdown pass was just the third for a 49er in the final minute of regulation in the last 15 seasons, including the postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"Nothing fazes him," tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "No moment is too big. All he's doing is looking for us and looking at us and telling us we're gonna be OK. When somebody is looking at you like that with the type of conviction he has in his eyes, you know you're going to be OK. It inspires you to fight your ass off for a quarterback who is playing as hard as he is and standing in the pocket and delivering huge throw after huge throw as he did today."
Coming off the defeat to Seattle, the Niners sleepwalked through the first quarter as the Cardinals jumped on them for the 16-0 lead. At one point early in the game, Arizona had outgained the 49ers 147-2.
While multiple Niners refused to blame the slow start on a hangover from Monday night, it was clear that they were not themselves in the early going. So massive were the offense's struggles that Shanahan admitted to abandoning the run game that had been the team's bread and butter in the first eight weeks.
The approach worked as Dwelley caught his two touchdowns and the Niners fought back to take a 17-16 lead and then exchanged blows with Arizona throughout the second half as Garoppolo's interceptions allowed the Cardinals to jump back in front.
But, as they have all season, the Niners got contributions from up and down the roster and scratched their way to a win, their most unlikely of the season.
"Last week, we played real hard, so did Seattle," Shanahan said. "It was just a tough emotional loss and to not have much time to recover from that. It lingered a little bit this week. We had to address a ton of it, which I think our guys did great. I think we were feeling good about it and ready to go to this game, but you never really can put that to bed until you end up winning another one. This game had a lot of similarities to it, which I think really challenged our will. Challenged the guys' character. They rose to the occasion. I think we got stronger from the Seattle week, even though it didn't go the way we wanted. I think we got stronger from it, I believe we got stronger today."
The 49ers figure to need that strength with a three-game gantlet including a home contest against the Green Bay Packers followed by road games at Baltimore and New Orleans next up.