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49ers left to focus on next year: ‘We’ll be fired up’
12:39 AM ET
  • Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer

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    • Covered Rams for nine years for stlouisrams.com
    • Previously covered University of Missouri football
    • Member of Pro Football Writers of America

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Inside a dejected San Francisco 49ers locker room, general manager John Lynch huddled with team CEO Jed York and Mike Shanahan, the father of head coach Kyle Shanahan, quietly taking stock of what had just happened.

Just past them, former Niners running back Frank Gore consoled current Niners running back Raheem Mostert, offering some encouraging words.

At a podium in the media tent just outside, Niners left tackle Joe Staley, the longest-tenured player on the team at 13 years, did his best to stay composed as he attempted to explain just how hard it was to swallow San Francisco’s 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

“I’m sorry, this is super disappointing,” Staley said. “This is very hard being in this moment right now. You put your heart and soul and whole entire life into trying to be a Super Bowl champion. And you get towards the end of your career and you realize how rare these opportunities are. Emotions are all still raw and real for me right now. I’m trying to answer questions, and I’m sorry that I’m not, but put yourself in my shoes for a second. It’s tough.”

Making it particularly tough for the 49ers on Sunday night was the fact that their record-tying sixth Super Bowl championship was in their grasp. Following safety Tarvarius Moore‘s interception at San Francisco’s 13, the Niners had the ball and a 10-point lead with 11:57 to go.

For most of the season and in the playoffs, that was exactly the scenario they would have wanted Sunday. For most of the game, the 49ers had success running the ball; the opportunity to hammer away the Chiefs on the ground, milk the clock and walk away with a championship was right in front of them.

“I think the turning point was when we got a turnover and then we didn’t execute on offense and they got the ball right back and drove it 87 yards or however far it was,” tight end George Kittle said. “As an offense, we have to end the game right there, and we didn’t.”

After compiling 292 yards and 18 first downs with nary a punt while averaging 7.9 yards per play on their first six drives, the 49ers’ offense stalled at the worst time imaginable. Over their final four offensive possessions, they gained just 59 yards with three first downs while averaging 3.5 yards per play. They punted twice, they turned the ball over on downs and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw a desperation interception.

Kansas City’s defense tightened up, dialing up more blitzes to pressure Garoppolo and catching the Niners in some protections that didn’t match up to those pressures. The Chiefs blitzed Garoppolo on 18 of his 33 dropbacks (54.5%), the highest blitz rate by Kansas City’s defense in a game since Week 10 of 2011, when the Chiefs blitzed Tim Tebow on 55.6% of his dropbacks.

That helped the Chiefs pressure Garoppolo on eight of his 13 dropbacks in the fourth quarter after getting just three pressures on his first 20. Garoppolo was 2-of-9 with two interceptions under duress, including 0-for-6 with an interception in the fourth quarter.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, with a 20-10 lead and 7:17 left to play, the 49ers had a 96.1% chance to win the game. It wasn’t enough.

“It definitely hurts,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “At the end of the day, that’s exactly the position we wanted to be in. So, I think that makes it hurt a little bit more, but you couldn’t have asked to be in a better situation.”

While the offense was struggling to find the traction needed to close the game out, the defense was unable to generate the final stop or two it needed to get the victory, especially on third down.

With 7:13 to play, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes hit receiver Tyreek Hill for a 44-yard gain on third-and-15 while under pressure from Niners defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. With 2:50 to go, Mahomes hit running back Damien Williams for the winning touchdown on third-and-goal at San Francisco’s 5.

Kansas City also converted a third-and-10 at the Niners’ 21 with 6:23 left when Moore was flagged for pass interference.

The Chiefs rattled off the game’s final 21 points in the fourth quarter to surge ahead and claim the Lombardi trophy. It was the most points allowed by the Niners in a quarter this season.

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After the 49ers fall to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, George Kittle says he has a lot of emotions, but “not a lot of fun ones.”

After the game, the 49ers didn’t offer much explanation for Kansas City’s offensive turnaround other than to credit Mahomes and his playmakers.

“We had the momentum, but Mahomes made a great throw [to Hill],” safety Jimmie Ward said. “We just had to finish. They ended up being the better team the second half. You’ve got to take your hat off to those guys. They played great and ended up finishing.”

The 49ers now enter a long offseason in which they will have to manage the pain and disappointment of a Super Bowl loss while also making plenty of difficult decisions and getting creative with the salary cap to keep some of their most important players in place.

Over the past 20 seasons, nine of the 20 Super Bowl runners-up did not make the postseason the following year, and only the 2018 New England Patriots reached the Super Bowl (they won it).

Still, the 49ers had no shortage of pride in their turnaround from 4-12 to within less than eight minutes of a Super Bowl title. And they believe the narrow loss will only motivate them to return.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Kyle Shanahan said. “We’ll lick our wounds, we’ll get over this. We’ll be fired up for next year, we got a lot of people coming back. I think we surprised a lot of people this year. We knew we had a really good team, I’m very proud of the guys and how much better they got throughout this year, and I expect to get almost all of these guys back and plan on adding a few more.

“We’re going to rest a little bit, get over this, but we’ll be very fired up for next year.”

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