LAS VEGAS – For the second time in four years San Francisco 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan walked into a dead quiet locker room with the difficult task of finding the words to comfort a team that had climbed within one step of the NFL mountaintop, only to fail there.
Similar to when his team took a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter Kansas City Chiefs In Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan came to the same conclusion after Sunday night's game 25-22 overtime loss to the same Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.
“There’s nothing else to say,” Shanahan explained. “I don’t care how you lose, when you lose Super Bowls, especially ones you think you can do, it hurts. But I think when you're in the NFL, I think every team should hurt except one.” End. We’re damn close, but we didn’t get there and we’re in a bad place right now.”
Sunday night's loss was painful, not just because of the fact that the Niners again had a double-digit lead that they couldn't maintain, or because they had two costly mistakes on special teams or running back Christian McCaffrey botched a promising opening attack. It hurt for all of those reasons, but even more so because it is the latest in a series of devastating near misses that are becoming a tradition in San Francisco in late January and early February.
The Niners have made it to at least the NFC Championship Game in four of the last five seasons. They reached the Super Bowl in two of those campaigns. They have lost double-digit leads in both Super Bowls and an NFC Championship game, with a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles without a healthy quarterback for most of the game.
It is San Francisco's third straight Super Bowl loss since its last win following the 1994 season, making it the fifth team to lose three straight Super Bowls Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos And Cincinnati Bengals. The Niners are also now 0-4 against the Chiefs under Shanahan, the most defeats without a win against any opponent under his leadership.
The 49ers were able to regularly achieve success well into the postseason. But the inability to turn them into championships has left a lingering bitter taste in the 49ers' mouth.
“We were so close so often that we only had so many options,” said the defense Nick Bosa said.
Sunday's loss brought plenty of chances to close the deal.
The 49ers were the aggressors in the first half, moving the ball at will on the game's first drive, averaging 11.5 yards per play on their first four snaps. On first-and-10 at the Kansas City 29-yard line, McCaffrey then took a handoff to the right where the Chiefs linebacker hit him Leo Chenalwho released the ball with defensive end George Karlaftis to win it back at Kansas City's 27.
It was McCaffrey's third fumble of the season after losing just two in his first six seasons combined (2017 to 2022). After the defeat, a distraught McCaffrey repeated the same phrase several times within a few minutes.
“The first thing that comes to mind is I can’t get the ball on the ground on the first drive,” McCaffrey said. “It will sting. Put this on me.”
That wasn't the only costly mishap for San Francisco. With 2:42 left in the third quarter and the Niners getting the ball back with a 10-6 lead, a special unit that was having a strong game began to falter.
Kansas City player Tommy Townsend's kick traveled 40 yards to the Niners' 25-yard line, where it hit the rookie cornerback Darrell Luter Jr.He hit his leg as he tried to block the returner Ray Ray McCloud.
Luter said he didn't hear the “Peter” call, which is the signal to get out of the way when the ball is coming toward a non-return player. An alert McCloud tried to pick up the ball, but lost it and the Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson fell on it in the Niners' 16th game.
McCloud said he had no regrets about how he tried to catch or recover the ball, but Luter was more disappointed that he couldn't dodge the ball at all.
“It’s a shitty feeling,” Luter said. “It kind of makes you feel like everything is on you. That's how it feels. But at the end of the day I have to take it with a grain of salt and just move on and learn from it.”
Even after the Chiefs immediately turned that mistake into a touchdown, the 49ers recovered with a 12-play touchdown drive — but even that was mitigated by the kicker Jake MoodyThe extra point is blocked by Chenal.
The Niners and Chiefs exchanged field goals to take overtime, after which San Francisco won the toss and decided to take the ball first. Under the league's new postseason overtime rules, both teams have a chance to have the ball before the game ends unless the first drive ends in a safety.
“We’ve been so close so many times that we only have so many more options.”
49ers DE Nick Bosa
Before the game, Shanahan said he and his analytics team discussed the possibility of an extension and decided to do so Patrick Mahomes On the other hand, it would be best to take the ball first because that would also mean that the Niners would get the ball on third down if both teams had the same points on their first possession and overtime would result in sudden death .
Shanahan said he felt good about the game he and his staff coached.
“What I can't live with is when I do things that I didn't mean to do or didn't do and question myself,” Shanahan said. “I am proud of what we achieved today as a coaching team and as players. We did everything we set out to do. We just couldn’t do it.”
Now the 49ers face another offseason in which they will be forced to figure out how to finally break through. The questions about all the things that stopped them from winning this and the previous ones will remain.
Most of San Francisco's veteran core is still under contract and should be back for another run. Before that, the 49ers will take their time mourning another loss on the Super Bowl stage. As Shanahan reminded his players in the locker room after the game, there is no time limit to dealing with this pain.
It's a process they'll become all too familiar with.
“It's hard being on the biggest stage in the world, coming up short and having to deal with what comes with that,” the San Francisco fullback said Kyle Juszczyk said. “It’s not easy, but it’s something we will never back down from and will never shy away from.”