LAS VEGAS — They have been here before, standing on the edge of greatness, but never this close, and never feeling quite like this.
For four years the San Francisco 49ers had been building to one moment. And they felt like everything they wanted was right in their hands.
Instead, when it was over and the red and gold confetti started flying again, they were left with a familiar, sad feeling — only worse. This time they felt like they threw their best chance at a Super Bowl championship away.
“I don’t know what you can say after this one because we’ve been so close so many times,” said 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa. “There’s only so many more opportunities that we’re going to have.”
They know the reality, though, is that they may never get as close as they were Sunday night when they lost Super Bowl LVIII to the Kansas City Chiefs in the final seconds of overtime, 25-22. The 49ers had it from the start — or so they thought. San Francisco had the Chiefs where they wanted them twice at the end of the game. They led so close to the final seconds.
But they just kept letting Patrick Mahomes hang around and get another opportunity to do what he does so well.
That’s what bothered the 49ers most. It’s why it seemed to hurt them so much more than the Super Bowl they lost to Mahomes and the Chiefs four years ago, and way worse than their losses in the NFC Championship games in each of the last two years. Those were missed opportunities, too. But from their perspective, they had the Vince Lombardi trophy in their hands in this game.
They just couldn’t find a way to put it away.
“They gave us plenty of opportunities,” said tight end George Kittle. “We just didn’t take advantage of them.”
“We had the team to do it,” added quarterback Brock Purdy. “That’s what’s so tough about this.”
The 49ers were all able to cite a wild string of things that went wrong in this game, each bad break or uncharacteristic mistake more painful than the last. Christian McCaffrey, who had 160 total yards, was still kicking himself over a first-quarter fumble when it looked like the 49ers were on their way to a touchdown on their opening drive. Brock Purdy, who threw for 255 yards and a touchdown, was beating himself up over three three-and-outs in the third quarter when the Chiefs were putting up 10 points to erase San Francisco’s 10-3 halftime lead.
“Obviously, we’re hurting. The team’s hurting.” — 49ers’ HC Kyle Shanahan after loss to Chiefs in the Super Bowl
Of course, in that third quarter was the Chiefs punt that ricocheted off the leg of 49ers cornerback Darrell Luter, forcing punt returner Ray-Ray McLoud to try to make a play on what should have been a dead ball. He couldn’t and the Chiefs recovered at the San Francisco 16 — close enough for Mahomes to need just one play for a touchdown pass that put Kansas City up 13-10.
The 49ers had an extra point blocked too, ruining an otherwise great performance by kicker Jake Moody. The rookie nailed three field goals, including ones from 55 and 52 yards. That missing point became a very big deal at the end of regulation when the 49ers were left protecting a 19-16 lead.
The fact that they couldn’t protect that, though, was what really bothered them. The tough 49ers defense throttled Mahomes and the Chiefs for 58 minutes. They battered him, frustrated him and kept the entire offense off balance for almost the entire game.
Then, in the final 1:53 of regulation and during the Chiefs’ lone drive of overtime, something went wrong. Mahomes woke up and went 13 of 16 for 101 yards and a touchdown. He also beat the 49ers with his legs, rushing twice for 27 yards on the drive that ended with his game-winning 3-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman.
“Not a lot has been said. It just hurts.” — 49ers’ QB Brock Purdy on team’s demeanor after Super Bowl loss vs. Chiefs
It didn’t help that the 49ers defense lost linebacker Dre Greenlaw to an Achilles injury in the first half.
“Dre’s obviously an amazing player, one of the best players on our team, one of the best linebackers in the NFL,” said defensive tackle Arik Armstead. “He’s our enforcer and our tone-setter. Not having him is a huge loss.”
But even without him, they still kept Mahomes relatively in check; at least until he worked his end-game magic. They still stopped the Chiefs on three of their four drives in the third quarter before they seemed to finally start to wear down.
“For our defense to give us that many stops like they did, and then for us to go three-and-out and not do anything with those opportunities,” Purdy said, “that’s what hurts me.”
“That first half was a very good defensive performance,” Bosa added. “But we missed opportunities. We definitely wanted to lap them a few more times.”
Instead, they let Mahomes pass them down the stretch. He took advantage of the opportunities he was presented. The 49ers did not. Even in overtime, after they took the ball and drove to the Kansas City 9, Purdy got pressured on a third-down play and his pass fell incomplete.
They got the field goal to take a 22-19 overtime lead, putting the game in the hands of their defense. But it was just another in a long line of blown chances — chances they know they may never get again. They’ve been fortunate to be on the doorstep for four straight years in a league where most teams are lucky if they even get one Super Bowl shot. They’ve been unfortunate that they’ve run into Mahomes and the Chiefs — perhaps the greatest quarterback of this generation and the NFL’s next great dynasty — twice.
The 49ers talked bravely after the game about learning their lessons, about going back to work to earn another shot, about reaching a future Super Bowl. But they know there are no guarantees. Their sad, quiet tone and dejected looks made it clear that they understood that shots like this can be incredibly rare. Who knows if next year’s team will be as good? At the very least, it won’t be the same.
That’s why the players said their locker room was so quiet, and why they struggled to describe the pain they were feeling after the game.
“Anybody got a nail they can step on?” asked receiver Jauan Jennings. “Kind of like that.”
“Offensively, we definitely could have played better.” — 49ers’ WR Jauan Jennings after loss to Chiefs in Super Bowl
“I thought we were going to win it,” Jennings added. “We had a chance to put them boys away.”
They did, but they didn’t do it. And now they’ve got to live with the reality that they may never have a chance this good again.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more