Losing a Super Bowl always stings. For the San Francisco 49ers, a 25-22 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday will hurt more than most. It will leave a lifetime of ‘ifs’.
If not for Jake Moody missed an extra point.
If not for 57 yard field goal by Harrison Butker.
If not for a ricocheting pound from the heel Darrell Luter Jr.
If not for Dre Greenlaw’s injury.
If not for the bounce off a fumble.
If the run was not abandoned in the third quarter.
If not, a strange fourth quarter plan on defense.
If you are not choosing to get the ball first in overtime.
If not for Patrick O’Maine.
Most Superblogs are set with smooth margins. Lady luck always plays a role. But even by typical standards, Sunday’s game was something different. Squint hard enough, and the Niners champions today, map out their parade route. Instead, they are almost the NFL team; a secondary character in the dynastic story of the Chiefs.
“There are no right words right now,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. “It hurts.”
This should have been their time, that’s what will hurt the most. The Chiefs were flawed contenders, with a rickety offense propped up by one of the league’s best defenses. Jumped out to an early lead, and the game was there for the taking.
And jump out they did. In the first quarter, San Francisco’s defense that had been stagnant all season was at its best. When they needed big plays to get the Taoiseach offense off the field, San Francisco’s swing came home. They held the Chiefs to three points before Usher had time to skate across the stage for the halftime show.
More than anything, the 49ers got the game they expected from Brock Purdy. Accurate, precise and playing his part as a creator, Purdy looked comfortable on his sport’s biggest stage. For a long stretch, the second-year starter was the calmest person on the field. He was dynamite in the opening quarter of the game, completing eight of his 10 passes to six different receivers. And he had his nerve as the game tightened in the fourth quarter and overtime. He made some crucial plays, including a crucial fourth-down completion to George Kittle and a touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings with pressure coming against him. If you had told the Niners before Sunday that they would get a mistake-free game from Purdy, they would have started measuring his fingers for rings.
Related: Super Bowl 2024: The 49ers held off the lead in overtime for a second straight NFL title
It wasn’t enough. Yes, the Chiefs were unlucky – they got six of the game’s seven fouls; they stayed healthy while Niners players wandered in and out of the injury tent. A beat about who got the next lucky one: every team to ever win the championship. But when the game was on the line, the talent and knowledge of the scheme and the championship took over. Kansas City benefited from their core four: Mahomes, Travis Kelce, head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The four game-defining moments were delivered. On the other side of the field, when they needed it most, the Niners froze.
When Shanahan looks back on this game, his mind will be drawn to the third quarter as far as its climactic finish. With a chance to push Christian McCaffrey into the line of scrimmage and control the flow of the game, Shanahan turned to Purdy instead. The Chiefs raised the line, and scared Shanahan into putting the Super Bowl in Purdy’s hands.
Shanahan took the bet. On the opening 11 plays of the third quarter, the Niners through the ball 10 times for a single rushing attempt. They walked three yards, turned the ball over once and didn’t get a single first down. Purdy played well overall, but that third quarter stretch gave the Chiefs a chance to adjust and claw their way back into the game.
Mahomes is indeed inevitable. But the Niners had a chance to get out of sight before the Chiefs quarterback and his receivers had a chance to establish a rhythm late in the game. In a sport full of hope and unpredictability, Mahomes is a remarkable constant. At some point, from somewhere, he was going to find the plays to put points on the board.
As soon as Mahomes started to take off, the Niners defense collapsed. They were able to pressure Mahomes with four pass rushers in the first half, but they went with a blitz-oriented strategy in the second half when the cheeks started to tighten and Steve Wilks, the team’s defensive coordinator, chose his comfort blanket to throw. Mahomes ate it up.
Although the Chiefs team rose to the moment, the Niners team spent the early part of the second half betraying, and allowing Mahomes and co. to climb back into the game.
You’ll start hearing it, and reading it, all over the place: Shanahan is a fraud. It’s a choker. The stories write themselves: Shanahan has now overseen three Super Bowl offenses that have reached double-digit streaks; he is the only coach to lose two Super Bowls in overtime. Now firmly entrenched in Marv’s Levy Zone, he’s the innovative coach who wins in the regular season and playoffs but can’t get past the hump in the big one.
Legacies, careers rest on the bounce of the fancy or the swing of a kicker’s foot. “You want to win it for that kind of guy,” Brock Purdy said of Shanahan after the game. “It’s unfortunate for the Coach. That’s who hurt me.”
What’s worse: it was all so completely predictable. Shanahan is a great coach, one of the main architects of the modern game. But it is does tend to overthink things in big spots. Game management can be sloppy. For all his scheming wizardry, the games start to slip away from him at the most important times. He is always looking for the perfect, technical answer, other than the correct one.
When games get tight, the best coaches think about players, not plays. After a slow first half, the Chiefs gave their share to the art of Mahomes and Kelce. In contrast, the Niners took the ball away from Christian McCaffrey – George Kittle, one of the teams in the world, had just one goal in the first three quarters. Purdy completed just four of 12 pass attempts in the second and third quarters combined, a period in which the Niners should have been chasing McCaffrey down KC’s throat.
By the time the Niners’ offense found its mojo again, Mahomes and Co. had found their own rhythm. And even then the Niners had a chance. They put up three points in overtime after opting to receive the kick. But down three they need to win it Mahomes, Kelce and Reid are in their happy place. Leave the jar door, and they’re going to find a way to go barreling through.
Where the Niners go from here is a complicated question. In Purdy, they have the best value contract at the most important position in the sport. But a salary cap crunch is looming, and several key contributors are about to be on the brink. Bouncing back from an offensive Super Bowl victory is one thing; there is no team that quit the math after two.
Measuring a team by rings alone is a broken way to measure success. Shanahan and the Niners are a handful of plays short of being two-time champions, prompting talk of a dynasty. But they ran first into Mahomes’ buzzsaw, first in Miami in Super Bowl LIV and then in Vegas on Sunday, and have earned a spot as Karl Malone’s Jazz with Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
History tells us that even the strongest cores only get one or two chances – at most – to win a title, unless they happen to have the best quarterback in their backfield. This Niners heart had two shots and it’s short. This was their best chance yet. A third may be asking too much.