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49ers look to get over the NFC title game hurdle after losing the past 2 years

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The most taxing part of getting to the precipice of the Super Bowl only to fall short might be the long journey just to return to that stage for another shot.

Offseason workouts, followed by training camp, a 17-game season and then the early rounds of the playoffs.

The San Francisco 49ers once again got through all that and earned another chance at winning the NFC championship game after losing in frustrating fashion the previous two seasons.

“When you lose the NFC championship, you want to snap your fingers and be there again. But you can't,” All-Pro fullback Kyle Juszczyk said after beating Green Bay 24-21 on Saturday night to return to this stage.

“There’s so much that has to happen between that last loss and getting back there again. And to finally be back there again, you don’t take it for granted. You know how hard it is and you know much it means to these guys here that have gone through that. I get emotional thinking about it. We’re back here, and it’s time to take care of business. It’s time.”

The 49ers (13-5) get that opportunity on Sunday when they host the Detroit Lions (14-5) for a spot in the Super Bowl.

San Francisco lost at this exact stage of the playoffs the past two seasons, blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter on the road against the Los Angeles Rams in the 2021 season and then losing again last year at Philadelphia when the Niners were forced to play much of the game without a functioning quarterback.

Starter Brock Purdy got hit hard on San Francisco's opening drive and tore a ligament in his throwing elbow. That forced into action fourth-stringer Josh Johnson, who joined the team late in the season, and he tried to keep the game competitive.

But the Niners fell behind by two touchdowns before Johnson left with a concussion early in the third quarter, forcing Purdy to finish the game even though he couldn't throw the ball more than a few yards.

Now they are back with a healthy Purdy and the confidence that this time will be different, that they won't become the fifth team ever to lose in the conference title game in three straight seasons.

“We’ve been thinking about it, it’s been sort of in the back of our minds, like, last year we had a team to do it, and we feel like we didn’t have a real opportunity at it after the quarterbacks got hurt in that game,” Purdy said. “So, I think we’re really excited for it."

The Niners have been one of the top teams in the league over the past five seasons, with their 61 wins in the regular season and playoffs ranking third in that span. But they don't have a championship to show for it, as a franchise that won five titles in a 14-year span from 1981-94 is approaching a three-decade drought for championship No. 6.

They have the roster to do it, however, with a league-high five first-team All-Pros and two more players selected to the second team.

But the 49ers know these chances aren't easy to attain, and some of their players know they might not have many more shots at getting that coveted championship.

That was shown by how difficult it was just to get past the seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers in the divisional round last weekend.

San Francisco needed a late-game rally to overcome a second-half deficit for the first time all season and held on for the three-point win.

“Me personally, I’m 0-2 in NFC championship games,” said 35-year-old All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams. “So this is one we’ve got to get. Obviously, I’m not getting any younger. So I definitely want to get to the top of the mountain. We definitely need this game. We’ve got to come out and play much better than we did (Saturday), but we’ve got another opportunity. That’s all we can ask for.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL