MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — For 18 games, three quarters and about eight minutes, the San Francisco 49ers defense was great. With seven minutes left Sunday, it looked worthy of a Super Bowl championship.
Patrick Mahomes hit a big third-and-15 pass to Tyreek Hill, and that started an avalanche. The Chiefs scored 21 points in the final minutes to turn a 20-10 deficit into a 31-20 win. The 49ers defense, which had been magnificent all season and had dominated most of Super Bowl LIV, couldn’t make a play.
“It is what it is,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “We didn’t execute at the end and they got the win.”
Sherman gave up one of the big plays. Sherman had a fantastic season and has had a Hall of Fame career. But with 3:44 left, Sammy Watkins beat Sherman for a 38-yard catch. That set up Damien Williams’ 5-yard touchdown run, which would be the game-winning score.
“He made a play,” Sherman said.
That’s how Sherman’s postgame news conference went. He’s one of the best interviews in the NFL, and he was entertaining all of Super Bowl week. After Sunday’s game, most of his answers were just a few words, usually punctuated with him saying the 49ers didn’t execute.
He was polite and professional. But he just didn’t seem to have any answers.
“Just mistakes. Just mistakes,” Sherman said. “Simple mistakes.”
Via Twitter, Sherman was more critical of himself, saying, “I wasn’t good enough tonight and I will fix that.”
Proud of this team! Wasn’t the result we wanted but we battled through. I wasn’t good enough tonight and I will fix that. Thank you for all the support all year.— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) February 3, 2020
49ers start fast, stumble to finish
The 49ers defense was the story of the game for the first three-and-a-half quarters. The Niners looked as good as they did in beating Minnesota and Green Bay in the NFC playoffs.
Mahomes, who has never had a truly terrible game in his NFL career, was struggling badly. The 49ers picked him off twice. The pass rush made him uncomfortable. The 49ers were shutting down Mahomes better than any other NFL defense had.
“For a second, he started feeling the pressure,” 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. “He started throwing up ducks.
“He started throwing it into our guys’ hands, pretty much.”
The 49ers ran out of gas. The Chiefs ended up running 71 plays, and that’s a lot to deal with against Kansas City’s fast offense. The Chiefs increased the tempo and even with the 49ers rotating linemen, it had an effect. The rush was slower. Mahomes had more time to throw. He broke contain a couple times for important runs.
“I guess you can say fatigue maybe, yeah,” Buckner said.
It didn’t help that the 49ers couldn’t sustain drives to give the defense a break. A three-and-out right after the Chiefs cut the 49ers lead to 20-17 was particularly damaging.
“They got a lot of plays,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “When you don’t convert third downs, don’t get explosive runs, you give them too many chances.”
The 49ers didn’t change anything about their defense in the final few minutes.
“Nothing,” Sherman said.
Sherman was asked again what was different.
“Nothing,” Sherman said again. “We just made mistakes.”
The Chiefs just started rolling and there was nothing the 49ers could do to stop it.
“It was just mistakes,” Sherman said. “Self inflicted.”
49ers defense comes up short
There were three plays that stood out in the 49ers’ defensive collapse.
The first one was Hill’s long catch, when he was all alone behind the defense and Mahomes found him. Then on a third-and-10, 49ers defensive back Tarvarius Moore got a clear pass interference penalty on a pass to Travis Kelce. That set up a touchdown by Kelce that made the score 20-17.
Then when Sherman was beat deep by Watkins, it was clear the game had turned and the Chiefs were going to win.
“Just coverage busts,” Sherman said.
The 49ers were a half of a quarter from going alongside the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, 2015 Broncos and a few other truly elite defenses that lifted their teams to a Super Bowl championship. All anyone will remember is the Chiefs’ rally and how San Francisco was suddenly powerless to stop it.
“We’re still a great defense,” Sherman said. “You’ve got to execute at the end though.”
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