Losing a Super Bowl always hurts. For the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday’s 25-22 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs will hurt more than most. It will leave a lifetime of ‘as’.
If not for Jake Moody’s missed an extra point.
If not for Harrison Butker’s 57-yard field goal.
If it wasn’t for a punt that deflected off Darrell Luter Jr.’s heel.
If not for Dre Greenlaw’s injury.
If not for the bouncing off a fumble.
If it wasn’t for giving up the run in the third quarter.
If there isn’t some bizarre defense plan for the fourth quarter.
If it is not the choice to receive the ball first in extra time.
If not for Patrick Mahomes.
Most Super Bowls are decided by slim margins. Ladies’ luck always plays a role. But even by typical standards, Sunday’s game was a little different. If you squeeze hard enough, the Niners are champions today and are plotting their parade route. Instead, they are the best team in the NFL; a secondary character in the Chiefs’ dynastic story.
“There are no right words right now,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. “It hurts.”
This should have been their time, that will hurt more than anything. The Chiefs were flawed contenders, with a rickety offense backed by one of the league’s best defenses. Take an early lead and the match was yours for the taking.
And stand out, they did. In the first quarter, a San Francisco defense that had declined over the course of the season was at its suffocating best. When they needed big plays to get the Chiefs offense off the field, San Francisco’s pass rush came down. They held the Chiefs to three points before Usher had time to roller skate across the stage for the halftime show.
Most importantly, the 49ers got the play they were hoping for from Brock Purdy. Poised, accurate and playing his role as a creator, Purdy was comfortable on his sport’s biggest stage. For extended periods, 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 held his nerve as the game tightened in the fourth quarter and overtime. He executed the must-have-it downs, including a crucial fourth-down completion to George Kittle and a touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings, with the pressure getting in his face. If you had told the Niners before Sunday that they would get a flawless game from Purdy, they would have started measuring their fingers for rings.
Related: Super Bowl 2024: Chiefs stun 49ers in overtime for second straight NFL title
It wasn’t enough. Yes, the Chiefs got their dose of luck: They recovered six of the game’s seven fumbles; they stayed healthy as Niner’s players walked in and out of the injury tent. Guess who else was luckier: every team that ever wins the championship. But when the game was on the line, talent, plans and championship knowledge took over. Kansas City turned to their core four: Mahomes, Travis Kelce, head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. All four delivered game-defining moments. On the other side of the field, when they needed it most, the Niners froze.
When Shanahan looks back on this game, his thoughts will be drawn to both the third quarter and the climactic ending. With an opportunity to pound Christian McCaffrey in the line of scrimmage and control the flow of the game, Shanahan turned to Purdy instead. The Chiefs loaded up the line and challenged Shanahan to put the Super Bowl in Purdy’s hands.
Shanahan took the bet. On the first eleven plays of the third quarter, the Niners passed the ball on a solo rush attempt ten times. They gained three yards, coughed the ball away once and didn’t get a single first down. Purdy played well overall, but that third quarter allowed the Chiefs to adjust and get back into the game.
Mahomes is indeed inevitable. But the Niners had a chance to be out of sight before the Chiefs quarterback and his receivers had a chance to build a rhythm late in the game. In a sport that trades in hope and unpredictability, Mahomes is a brilliant constant. At some point, from somewhere, he would find the rules of the game to put points on the board.
Once Mahomes got going, the Niners’ defense blinked. They had managed to pressure Mahomes with four pass rushers in the first half, but switched to a blitz-oriented strategy in the second half as cheeks began to tighten and Steve Wilks, the team’s defensive coordinator, opted to to put on a comfort blanket. Mahomes ate it up.
While the Chiefs staff rose for the moment, the Niners staff spent the first part of the second half blinking and letting Mahomes and co. to get back into the game.
You’re going to hear and read it everywhere: Shanahan is a cheater. He’s a choker. The storylines write themselves: Shanahan has now overseen three Super Bowl offenses that have produced double-digit returns; he is the only coach to lose two Super Bowls in overtime. He’s now firmly entrenched in the Marv Levy Zone, the innovative coach who racks up wins in the regular season and the playoffs but can’t get over the hump in the big one.
Legacies, careers and lives rest on the bounce of a fumble or the swing of a kicker’s leg. “You want to win it for a guy like that,” Brock Purdy said of Shanahan after the game. “It sucks for Coach. That’s who I hurt for.”
What’s worse, it was all so completely predictable. Shanahan is an excellent coach, one of the leading architects of the modern game. But he do tend to overthink things in big places. His game management can be sloppy. For all his schematic wizardry, games start to unravel at key moments. He is always looking for the perfect, technical answer, instead of the correct one.
When things get exciting, the best coaches think about the players and not the games. After a slow first half, the Chiefs surrendered their offense to the artistry of Mahomes and Kelce. The Niners, on the other hand, took the ball away from Christian McCaffrey – George Kittle, the team’s tight end, 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 when the Niners should have rammed McCaffrey down KC’s throat.
By the time the Niners’ offense rediscovered its mojo, Mahomes and Co. had found their own rhythm. Even Than the Niners had a chance. They scored three points in overtime after electing to receive the kick. But behind the three who need a touchdown to win it all, Mahomes, Kelce and Reid are in their happy place. Leave the door ajar and they will find a way to run through it.
Where the Niners go from here is a tough question. In Purdy they have the best value contract at the most important position in the sport. But a salary cap crisis is looming, and several of their key contributors are on the brink of their prime. Bouncing back from a sickening Super Bowl loss is one thing; There hasn’t been a team that has gotten off the mat after two.
Measuring a team by rings alone is a flawed way to evaluate success. Shanahan and the Niners are just a handful of games away from becoming two-time champions, sparking rumors about their dynasty. But they have run head-on into the Mahomes buzzsaw, first in Miami in Super Bowl LIV and then in Vegas on Sunday, carving out a place like Karl Malone’s Jazz and Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
History tells us that even the strongest cores only get one or two chances – at most – to capture a title, unless they happen to have the greatest quarterback of all time in their backfield. The core of these Niners took two shots and came up short. This was their best chance yet. A third may be asking too much.