There’s an argument to be made that the 49ers were the better team for four of the five quarters, and even that wasn’t enough to defeat the NFL’s newest dynasty. The Chiefs showed the 49ers the difference between a team that’s gotten close four times over the last five years and a team that’s won a championship for the third time in five seasons.
Three winners and three losers from the final game of the 2023 season:
Winner: WR Jauan Jennings
With Super Bowl losses come performances that get lost in the result, and unfortunately for the 49ers receiver, his performance might be just that.
Jennings’ four receptions were second-most on the team behind Christian McCaffrey’s eight, but his arm was what threw the first big punch on Sunday. After Kansas City’s third drive resulted in no points to open the game, Jennings would get his first touch on a backward pass from Brock Purdy. He would then turn to look upfield to throw before throwing back across the field to McCaffrey with a calvary ahead full head of steam, going untouched for the 21-yard score to put the 49ers up ten.
Third-and-Jauan would appear in the third quarter, with a 17-yard reception on a third-and-5 to prevent a three-and-out following Kansas City’s first touchdown. The third down reception extended what would blossom into a 12-play drive ending in Jennings’ first-career Super Bowl touchdown reception. Purdy found Jennings on a quick hitter a couple of yards off the line of scrimmage, giving the receiver some work. He would slip out of a L’Jarius Snead tackle attempt before powering through Mike Edwards to break the plane to give San Francisco a fourth-quarter lead.
Had there been a different result, we would be talking about Jauan Jennings, the Super Bowl MVP, but instead, the performance will be filed somewhere next to the Super Bowl catches made by Julio Jones and Jermaine Kearse.
Winner: the first-half defense
There are not too many better spots to be in than holding Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense to three points in the first half, but that’s where the 49ers found themselves on Sunday.
Everything was going to plan for Steve Wilks and the San Francisco defense. Mahomes and the Chiefs offense managed 123 first-half passing yards, with the only big play coming on a 52-yard pass from Mahomes to Mecole Hardman, but outside of that, it could not have been a more perfect first half.
The Chiefs first half drives result in a:
The defensive line was getting contributions from every spot. Chase Young played his best game in a 49ers jersey, including a first-half sack. Arik Armstead recorded a sack of his own. Randy Gregory had a big tackle on Mahomes’ third-and-long scramble, cutting the play short for a gain of four.
Even after the Hardman 52-yard reception, the defense made one of the game’s biggest plays. Inside the San Francisco 10-yard-line for the first time, Mahomes handed the ball off to Isaiah Pacheco, who had the ball knocked out by Deommodore Lenoir, recovered by Javon Hargrave, abruptly ending the drive.
In the first half, the defense did its job to keep the door open for the offense to take early control of the game.
Loser: not capitalizing on the first-half defense
The offense, however, did its best to keep Kansas City in the game, managing just ten points on five first-half drives.
San Francisco started the game with the ball and opened with what seemed to be a promising drive. McCaffrey had two carries for 17 yards, with Purdy completing both pass attempts for 29 yards. The offense quickly found itself near the red zone, with McCaffrey getting his fourth touch in five plays, but Leo Chenal managed to knock the ball out, recovered by George Karlaftis, ending a drive that seemed destined for at least three points.
The 49ers offense from there would go:
End of half
After the fumble, it took some time to find a rhythm, and while it managed the two scores in the first half, the offensive struggles leaked into the third quarter, with the first three drives in the second half ending in punts.
The defense did its job holding the Kansas City offense to the three points, but the ten points in response wasn’t nearly enough to keep what turned out to be the inevitable from happening.
Loser: all the miscues
What makes the loss on Sunday just that much more painful – at least to me – is there isn’t just one play to pinpoint where the game was lost in previous years. But while there wasn’t just one play, there were several throughout the game that you would like to have back, especially with the result.
The first big turn of the game was McCaffrey’s fumble on the opening drive, but Kansas City did nothing with the free drive, giving the ball right back to San Francisco. Yes, the points lost on the drive hurt, but it’s still the game’s first drive. There are plenty of chances to make up, but the offense never seemed to recover.
Then, to open the second half, Ji’Ayir Brown picked off Mahomes inside Kansas City territory to set the offense up with prime field position. The offense responded with three plays, losing one yard and punting the ball back to Mahomes and company.
A few drives later, with San Francisco holding onto a four-point lead, the defense again forced a Kansas City punt. Ray-Ray McCloud opted to let the ball drop, but the ball landed and deflected off Darrell Luter’s foot, forcing McCloud to try to return the ball. Instead of falling on the ball, McCloud wanted to pick it up but stumbled, allowing a Kansas City recovery. The Chiefs would score its first touchdown on the next play.
The 49ers offense, however, would answer back with a touchdown to regain the lead with a PAT pending to extend the lead to four. However, Chenal blocked Jake Moody’s attempt to keep the Chiefs within a field goal. And on the very next drive, Kansas City tied the game with a field goal.
None of these moments necessarily cost the 49ers the game, but each is a bookmark for a what-if moment in a game where the result could be different if any of these plays go the 49ers’ way.
Winner: QB Brock Purdy
Was it his best performance? No. Was it a great performance? Not quite. But Brock Purdy went blow-for-blow in the Super Bowl against a quarterback who will have the greatest of all-time moniker within the next few years and came *this* close to coming out on top.
Steve Spagnuolo and the Kansas City defense threw the kitchen sink at Purdy, and the second-year quarterback seemed unphased. His stat line of 255 yards with a touchdown might not be his most impressive, but at no point did the moment seem too big for Purdy. And even under pressure, Purdy stood firm:
Brock Purdy completed 12 of his 19 attempts against the blitz for 131 yards and a touchdown while getting sacked once in Super Bowl LVIII.
Three of the four final drives of the game – including the one-play kneel – saw the 49ers either trailing or tied with Kansas City, needing to put points on the board. After the Chiefs took its first lead of the game in the fourth quarter, Purdy and the 49ers offense responded with a 12-play touchdown-scoring drive, with Purdy throwing for 60 yards and finishing the drive with the touchdown pass to Jennings, giving the 49ers a three-point fourth-quarter lead.
The Chiefs would tie the game, putting the ball back into Purdy’s hands in a tie game with 5:46 left in regulation. Purdy would hit Jennings again, this time for 23 yards, to move the ball to midfield, where a couple of runs would put the 49ers in field goal range to retake a three-point lead.
Kansas City matched the field goal, sending the game to overtime, where the 49ers started with the ball (that decision might require its own post and is entirely too much to go into in winners and losers). Purdy would drive the 49ers down the field, completing four-of-six passes, including a short pass McCaffrey took 24 yards to get deep into Kansas City territory. However, when faced with a third-and-four inside the 10-yard-line, the right side of the 49ers offensive line left Chris Jones unblocked, not giving Purdy enough time to hit Jennings, who had space for either
the first down or the touchdown.
And that was that.
Field goals don’t win Super Bowls, that’s for sure. But in a season where there were plenty of questions surrounding just how good Purdy is, the quarterback didn’t shy away when the lights were at their brightest. While short in his first chance, Purdy looked like a quarterback that could win a Super Bowl.
But while he looked like he could win a Super Bowl, the quarterback on the other side already had that experience of winning the Super Bowl, and it showed.
Loser: giving Patrick Mahomes two chances where a touchdown wins the game
It sucks that Tom Brady finally retired after his two decades of dominance, and the NFL didn’t get a break from the “one quarterback dominates the league” prototype.
Kansas City allowing the game to go to overtime felt like a lifeline to the 49ers. With San Francisco up three with 1:53 left, Mahomes methodically walked the Kansas City offense down the field, completing four passes and moving the ball deep into San Francisco territory. Kansas City had a chance to end the game in regulation with the ball at San Francisco’s 11-yard line with 10 seconds left, but Mahomes couldn’t find Travis Kelce, setting up the game-tying field goal.
While Mahomes didn’t beat the 49ers in regulation, San Francisco gave him another chance to drive the dagger into the heart in overtime. The 49ers’ offense couldn’t quite get in the endzone on their opportunity in the extra period, and Mahomes would make them pay. Mahomes completed all eight of his passes and added 27 rushing yards – eight coming on a fourth-and-1 that could have ended the game – hitting Hardman for the Lombardi-winning touchdown.
San Francisco played with fire twice, giving Mahomes two chances to win the game. They got away with a slight burn the first time, but the second time, Mahomes engulfed them in flames.