The San Francisco 49ers are one game away from the Super Bowl, but it's the one game they've been unable to win all season. In a year marked by some superlative numbers -- two highly rated quarterbacks, one genius on the sidelines, a sixth championship in sight -- the Niners remained divided by threes.
This year's Niners were humbled in every third game -- four times with a loss and once with a tie. No Super Bowl champion has ever gone through a regular season without winning at least three in a row, and before the 49ers can lower that particular bar to greatness, they must win their third straight game when they meet the Atlanta Falcons Sunday for the NFC Championship.
The Falcons opened their season with eight consecutive victories, and the New England Patriots -- playing Baltimore Sunday for the AFC title -- had a seven-game winning streak -- until they were beaten by the 49ers, who finished the regular campaign 11-4-1.
So, thrice would have been nice. But if in the regular season you don't succeed, the only thing left to do is tri-, tri-, tri- again.
A highly scientific sampling of players, coaches, people awakened abruptly on buses and numerologists who don't know anything about football has revealed that there's no reason for Niners fans to panic. The team's single statistical shortcoming isn't something to worry about. Probably.
The players aren't freaking about their failure at streaking. "It's none of our concern," said San Francisco's Pro Bowl safety, Dashon Goldson, about the absence of threes. "We've got another opportunity and we've got to get it done."
And if they do, they'll get another opportunity, this one to do what no NFL team has done. "That's what making history is all about," said Harry Edwards, a sports psychologist who has been a consultant to the 49ers for the past 30 years. "The fans? They can have fun with it. The betting crowd? They can have fun with it. The reality is, it doesn't matter. If some people had more to do, they wouldn't have time to look up these obscure, largely irrelevant statistical coincidences."
Yes, some people.
"Your brain just doesn't work like that when you're playing week to week," said Randy Cross, the former 49ers offensive lineman and CBS football analyst. "The only thing they have to think about, and the only way that they do think, is about a one-game winning streak. Three one-game winning streaks, that's all it takes."
Hall of Fame coach and video game avatar John Madden was joy riding through the mean streets of Pleasanton in the Madden Cruiser when he confronted the possibility of using the statistical oddity as a locker room ploy. "If you have 50 things that you have to be aware of, that would maybe be No. 49," Madden said. "I wouldn't bring it up unless I looked back and saw a reason for it. Like maybe we didn't have (good) concentration the week after we won."
Whether the quarterback was Alex Smith -- knocked out in the season's ninth game, a 24-24 tie with St. Louis -- or Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' attention span never seemed to exceed two games.
"I think it's pretty telling," said Michael Smith, host of "Numbers Never Lie" on ESPN2. "What it says is, there has to be a measure of consistency, and that has to start somewhere. The Niners have looked like worldbeaters one week, then like an OK team that can be exploited the next. Who can forget Sunday night in Seattle the week after they beat New England? And the David Akers thing hasn't gone away."
The struggling kicker has been a factor in the team's ups and downs, hitting only 29-for-42 this season -- a potential liability in postseason play. Akers was All-Pro last season, and San Jose numerologist Susan Moon says Sunday he will be having a day characterized by its "threeness," when his thoughts will focus on past glories. "This is a time ... to keep using the methods that worked for him in the past," Moon said, in a reading commissioned by this newspaper, "to discard what didn't work and implement a new approach or strategy."
That would probably be fine with coach Jim Harbaugh, whose two-year tenure has been marked by the absence of another kind of streak: His 49ers teams have never lost two in a row. He has accomplished this by making sure the players stay irritable with themselves after a loss.
"Usually when you're ticked off you're going to do one of two things," Harbaugh said. "You're going to come back and do something about it, or you go cower in the corner and shrivel up in the fetal position. So, come back, chest somebody up and let's do something about it."
Not just something. The third thing.
Staff writers Cam Inman and Daniel Brown contributed to this report. Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004; follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.