49ers report card: Defense falters in the clutch against toughest test yet

LAS VEGAS – Here is how the 49ers (14-6) graded in Sunday’s 25-22 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs (15-6) in Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium:


Brock Purdy’s 38th and final pass seemingly sealed the 49ers’ fate, when Chris Jones (of all obvious defenders) pressured him into a desperation overthrow of Jauan Jennings on the third-down play that led to a meek field goal on the opening series of overtime. Purdy (23-of-38, 255 yards, one touchdown) made some clutch throws in his Super Bowl debut, such as a fourth-and-3 conversion to George Kittle that allowed for a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jennings two plays later for a 16-13 lead. Jennings, a pending free agent, had the breakout game of his career, not only with the all-effort touchdown grab in the fourth quarter but also a third-down conversion earlier in the drive, to say nothing of his 21-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey for a 10-0, second-quarter lead. Deebo Samuel caught just 3-of-11 targets for 33 yards and battled through a third-quarter hamstring injury. Brandon Aiyuk also had just three catches (six targets, 49 yards), but his 20-yard snag to open the fourth quarter should have been a reminder to seek him more (like on the final pass of the game). Catches by Chris Conley (18 yards) and Ray-Ray McCloud (19 yards) led to their first points on a field goal. Purdy was sacked just once, but he got flushed repeatedly (see: final throw).


Christian McCaffrey understandably flogged himself for losing an opening-drive fumble at the Chiefs’ 27-yard line. But the NFL’s rushing champion composed himself to make a positive impact, finishing with 80 yards both on 22 carries and on eight receptions. Samuel gained just 8 yards on three carries, which reflects the offense’s predictability and his underwhelming impact as a rusher this season. Other rushers: Purdy (12 yards, three carries), Elijah Mitchell (8 yards, two carries), and Kyle Juszczyk 2-yard run for a first down. The offensive line was stonewalled at times, and the best blocking came on the trick-play touchdown to McCaffrey, who received lane-clearing blocks from Spencer Burford, Aaron Banks, Colton McKivitz and Jake Brendel – none of whom were illegally downfield.

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Yielding 333 yards to Patrick Mahomes seemed almost unavoidable as he won his third Super Bowl in five years. As was the case four years ago in Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers impressively pressured Mahomes early in the game, though he was 11-of-13 for 123 yards at halftime. Nick Bosa registered three quarterback hits and pressured Mahomes into other incompletions. Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave and Chase Young registered sacks. The 49ers’ defense eventually cracked. It’s one thing for the safeties to surrender a 52-yard bomb to Mecole Hardman, but it’s a season-ender when Hardman slips past Logan Ryan (a surprise starter at nickel back) and is wide open for Mahomes’ Super Bowl-winning 3-yard touchdown pass with three seconds remaining. Allowing Travis Kelce to break free and come alive in the fourth quarter (16-, 13-, 9- and 22-yard grabs) led to a pair of tying field goals. Ji’Ayir Brown caught an interception inside midfield right after halftime, and the 49ers’ offense did nothing with it over a three-and-out blast.


Again, the 49ers’ defense was dominating, until Mahomes and the offense needed to make plays, which they did in the end. The most punishing run came on fourth-and-inches in overtime, when Bosa bit inside and allowed Mahomes to dart past him for an 8-yard gain. The season could have ended there. Instead, Mahomes went after the 49ers again with a 19-yard scramble up the middle, and, three plays later, he delivered his easy-peasy winning strike. Mahomes had 66 yards (nine carries), while Isiah Pacheco had twice as many carries but just 59 yards. Deommodore Lenoir stripped Pacheco of the ball and Javon Hargrave recovered at the 49ers’ 8-yard line, but the 49ers’ offense couldn’t convert that into a positive drive, either.

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Two plays really bit the 49ers. One, a punt return they muffed at the end of the third quarter, when the ball bounced off rookie Darrell Luter and failed to get recovered by Ray-Ray McCloud; Mahomes threw a 16-yard touchdown pass on the next play to take a 13-10 lead. The other regret: Jake Moody’s low point-after kick was blocked after Jennings’ go-ahead touchdown catch, thus keeping the score at 16-13 when the 49ers really could have used one more point. Not all was a disaster: Moody made a 55-yard field goal that set a Super Bowl record until Harrison Butker made a 57-yarder; Chris Conley and George Odum made great plays in coverage.


Another Super Bowl lead vanished, so Kyle Shanahan was tagged with another defeat. Of course there will be second-guessing after any loss. I’ve got no issues taking the ball first in overtime but it’s a fair debate. Settling for a field goal to open overtime was fine; allowing Mahomes to march downfield with his legs and arm was unacceptable, rubbed in by the game-ending touchdown pass. Remember to praise Shanahan for his fourth-down call to Kittle. Special teams had their aforementioned issues, too. It’ll be interesting to see how Shanahan shakes up his staff, when, for the first time in four years, none of his assistants are leaving for a head-coaching job.

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