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Barnwell: How the Chiefs course-corrected to win it all, and why the 49ers will have regrets


Is the twist ending better than the one you can see coming from a mile away? For most of Sunday’s Super Bowl LVIII between the 49ers and Chiefs, it felt like the game we were watching was entirely different from what we would have expected to see from these teams. A matchup of the NFL’s most dominant offense against the best quarterback of this generation was producing field goals and needed trick plays to generate touchdowns. The coach who has been excoriated for staying conservative got aggressive and put his team in position to win the game. Weaknesses were playing out as strengths and vice versa on both sides of the ball.

And then, as the game faded into the second half and entered the first enhanced overtime period in playoff history, the course corrected. Everything (or just about everything) 49ers fans feared about their chances came true. Given opportunities to strike the fatal blow, Kyle Shanahan and the Niners weren’t able to close the door on their rivals. And while they narrowly escaped Patrick Mahomes’ first attempt at winning the game, they weren’t able to survive a second time. In the end, as they so often are, Mahomes and the Chiefs were inevitable.

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To understand how the Chiefs were able to come back and claim their third Super Bowl title in five years, we need to talk about how this game defied expectations before eventually being decided by many of the factors we would have counted on heading into the game. And let’s start with a big one …

Jump to a section:
The biggest surprises, and what changed
Which coach made the game’s worst decision?
Did Shanahan make a mistake in overtime?
The best player on the field was …

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The surprises that got turned upside down

Surprise: The Chiefs looked stagnant, sloppy and out of ideas on offense for most of the game

The 49ers have a good defense, but after being chewed up for stretches by the Packers and Lions over the past two weeks, the expectation was the Chiefs would find ways to move the ball against Steve Wilks’ unit. Mahomes & Co. haven’t been the most consistent offense this postseason, but they moved the ball well against the Dolphins and Bills and scored two early touchdowns with brilliant drives against the Ravens.

Here, they were flailing for most of the first half. Their first four drives produced a 52-yard completion to Mecole Hardman on a pass safety Tashaun Gipson seemed to lose in the stadium lights, but they generated 37 net yards on their 14 other plays. An Isiah Pacheco fumble on first-and-goal at the 49ers’ 9-yard line contributed to Kansas City going scoreless on those opening possessions. Mahomes and the offense failed to score a touchdown on any of their first nine drives, which is just the fourth time that has happened in 113 Mahomes starts. One of those prior three games, ominously enough, was the blowout loss to the Bucs in Super Bowl LV.

For most of the day, Kansas City’s game plan simply didn’t work. The Chiefs projected to have an advantage running the football on the 49ers, who had struggled to stop Aaron Jones and David Montgomery earlier in the postseason. They didn’t. Even with 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw sadly suffering a torn Achilles while running onto the field in the first half, the Chiefs couldn’t move the chains with their conventional running game. Pacheco carried the ball 18 times for 59 yards, but those runs generated a season-worst minus-12.0 expected points added (EPA). Pacheco was stuffed on a pair of third-and-1 opportunities; one produced a punt, while the other forced the Chiefs to convert a fourth-and-1 for their playoff lives in overtime. He also lost the aforementioned fumble in the red zone and dropped a pitch at the start of the second half to put the team behind schedule.

The explosive Chiefs from the past could still terrify opposing defenses in third-and-long, but these Chiefs now need Mahomes magic to bail them out in those situations. The 49ers were able to end drives with easy stops on third-and-12, third-and-14 and third-and-16 early in the first half, while a third-and-12 in the third quarter produced a rare awful throw from Mahomes and an interception by Ji’Ayir Brown.

What changed: The Chiefs found concepts that worked and went back to them in overtime

If you were paying close attention to this game (or last year’s Super Bowl), you saw three ideas that helped bail out the Chiefs and get them conversions. They didn’t find a lot of solutions against the 49ers, but what worked once worked for them again.

Naturally, that starts with the final play and the return of an old friend: “Corndog” motion, with a wide receiver coming in motion like he’s about to run a jet sweep before quickly returning in the opposite direction, creating an unexpected movement to try to defend on the fly. The tactic produced two critical red zone touchdowns for the Chiefs in their victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII.

Well, the league has had a year to prepare for Andy Reid to bring back his Corndog, and it arrived at the right time. On the final snap of the game, the Chiefs brought Hardman in motion before having him return in the other direction at the snap and shooting out into the flat. Tight ends Noah Gray and Travis Kelce served as distractions and potential picks for defensive backs. Cornerback Charvarius Ward took Kelce, while safety Logan Ryan, unexpectedly playing as slot corner after the 49ers decided to bench Ambry Thomas for the Super Bowl, wasn’t able to react quickly enough and get to Hardman. The former Jets wideout waltzed into the end zone for the title-clinching score:

This wasn’t the only repeat performance from the Chiefs. On third-and-7 with 16 seconds left in regulation and star linebacker Fred Warner lined up tight on Kelce, Kansas City went to a core concept for just about every offense: Mesh, where the main components are two crossing routes that attempt to pick off man coverage, a wheel route to stretch linebackers and some sort of vertical route behind the crossers to beat zone defense. Most teams don’t have two tight ends quick enough to run Mesh, but Gray picked Warner without ever touching the San Francisco linebacker, and Kelce ran away from the defense for 22 critical yards. Warner got a modicum of revenge by stopping Kelce on the next play to force a field goal and overtime, but this turned a difficult field goal attempt into a chip shot.

When they faced third-and-6 in overtime, guess what they ran again? This time, they ran Mesh with Rashee Rice and Richie James as the crossers. With the 49ers playing Cover 0 with man defense across the board, Rice got open quickly and ran away from the coverage for a critical 13-yard completion to get into San Francisco territory. Six plays later, the Chiefs were champs again.

The most unique wrinkle might have been Reid loosening the restrictions on Mahomes as a designed runner. The Chiefs took their quarterback sneaks out of the playbook after Mahomes suffered a knee injury on one in 2019, first running them with tight ends before essentially abandoning sneaks altogether. When he then suffered a concussion while running a speed option in the playoff win over the Browns in January 2021, Reid seemed to shy away further from plays in which Mahomes is designed to keep the football. I believe the Chiefs have dialed up a total of just four designed runs for Mahomes over the ensuing 60 games.

Well, if there was ever a time to play against tendencies and take a risk, it’s in the Super Bowl with a struggling offense. The Chiefs went to a triple-option concept with Mahomes, and it produced two valuable conversions. With Nick Bosa crashing down to try to take away the run from the backside, they took advantage of Bosa’s aggressiveness by reading him on a zone-read concept. When he chased after Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Mahomes faked his handoff and kept the ball. He has the option to throw the ball into the flat to Gray, but when a defender also chases after Gray, he kept it and ran untouched for 22 yards. This was the longest run of the game for the Chiefs and set up their first points of the second half:

Fast-forward to overtime and the fourth-and-1 that could have won the 49ers the Super Bowl. With his season on the line, Reid called the exact same triple-option concept. This time, it was Pacheco on the zone run and Kelce in the flat, but once Bosa began to chase down Pacheco and Ryan took Kelce in the flat, Mahomes moseyed upfield for 9 easy yards to extend the game.

I’m not picking on Bosa, who was excellent all day and was just following responsibilities. With a quarterback who doesn’t keep on run concepts, defenders are always going to try to chase down a run from the backside and abandon the quarterback. Reid might have remembered his team’s heartbreaking loss to the Colts in the 2013 playoffs, when the Chiefs went up 38-10 before eventually losing 45-44. Quarterback Andrew Luck converted a critical fourth down early in the comeback by unexpectedly keeping the ball on a zone run and gaining 21 easy yards. That sort of tendency-breaker can be a source of a much-needed big play at the right time, and it helped save Kansas City on Sunday.

Surprise: The 49ers slowed down Mahomes as a scrambler and improviser for most of the game

In my preview, I wrote about how Mahomes had thrived in the newest version of the Chiefs’ offense by essentially becoming unsackable. The 49ers had a great defensive line, but they had been criticized for their performance against the run, and Mahomes’ ability to avoid sacks and extend plays presented the possibility of neutralizing San Francisco’s biggest strength.

For most of the day, the 49ers won that battle. Wilks clearly instilled an emphasis on maintaining rush lane security and encouraged his linemen to contain Mahomes in the pocket as opposed to attempting to sack him. Bosa and others repeatedly laid in wait for the quarterback to try to escape, then chased down the future Hall of Famer before he could find an open receiver. San Francisco didn’t blitz Mahomes once in the first half, but it still managed to pressure him seven times. One of those plays produced a 21-yard completion to Justin Watson, but Mahomes was sacked twice, had two scrambles well short of the sticks on third-and-long and committed an intentional grounding penalty. The 49ers were thriving on defense.

What changed: They slowed down, made mistakes and didn’t find blitzes that worked

In the second half, that plan broke down. Chase Young twisted inside on a third-and-4, allowing Mahomes to loop to that side for his first scramble conversion of the day. The Niners then dropped Young into the flat in coverage on a sim pressure, and while Oren Burks got Mahomes off his spot, he was able to scramble for another first down.

The third-and-1 scramble for 19 yards in overtime that set up the game-winning touchdown was a moment of brilliance from Kelce and Mahomes, who foiled the 49ers’ plot to contain him by scrambling directly up the middle. The 49ers rushed four, but Warner ran on one crosser with Rice, while Ryan ran with Kelce. Mahomes likely saw enough space to pick up a couple of yards and move the chains, but when Kelce saw Mahomes beginning to run, he broke off his crossing route and ran directly upfield, like he was trying to score a touchdown. Ryan turned his back and chased after Kelce, freeing up Mahomes to turn what should have been a short gain into a 19-yard backbreaking scramble.

As it did the last time these two teams played in the Super Bowl, San Francisco’s four-man rush wore down after the third quarter. The 49ers pressured Mahomes without blitzing on 46.4% of their dropbacks through three quarters. That mark fell to 19% in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Wilks noticed and dialed up five blitzes in the second half, four of which came on third downs. Mahomes went 5-of-5 against the blitz for 42 yards, including the third-down conversion to Jerick McKinnon on the final drive of the fourth quarter and the aforementioned throw to Rice that moved the chains in overtime.

Surprise: The 49ers’ special teams did some great things

One obvious point of weakness for San Francisco was supposed to be its special teams, which ranked well below the Chiefs’ by stats such as DVOA and EPA. Rookie kicker Jake Moody had missed at least one kick in each of his postseason appearances, and this didn’t feel like the sort of game that Niners fans would want to see turned into a kicking and field position contest.

Instead, the 49ers made some big plays. Moody hit a 55-yard kick to open the scoring in the first quarter, and after the offense stalled out with 1:53 to go, he hit from 53 to give the 49ers a 19-16 lead. Led by Chris Conley, San Francisco’s coverage units did a great job of limiting James to a total of 12 yards on four punt returns, as Mitch Wishnowsky matched Tommy Townsend punt-for-punt, with both players producing five punts for exactly 254 yards.

What changed: Yet again, special teams came back to bite the 49ers

Moody appeared to be at fault when a low extra point attempt was blocked by Chiefs linebacker Leo Chenal in the fourth quarter, keeping the game within three points at 16-13. The teams then traded field goals before hitting overtime. While we don’t know how the game would have played out if the Chiefs were down four as opposed to three, blocking an extra point obviously made things easier for Reid’s team.

While the Chiefs were flailing on offense, a turnover helped get them back into the contest. While both teams lost promising possessions to fumbles by their running backs and they each muffed a punt, James fell on his near-disaster. The 49ers weren’t so lucky. A Townsend punt bounced off of the foot of unknowing San Francisco cornerback Darrell Luter, and while Ray-Ray McCloud tried to clean up the mess, the Chiefs fell on the football for a massive swing of field position. Mahomes hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a touchdown pass on the following snap to give the Chiefs their first lead of the game. In the simplest analysis, those two plays swung eight points toward the Chiefs.

Nobody is ever comfortable with the role of luck in winning or losing football games, but we know fumble recoveries are random, and they sure played a big role Sunday. The Chiefs recovered six of the seven fumbles that hit the ground, and while sloppy fumbles on offense cost them points, they benefited greatly from having the opening 49ers drive zapped by a Christian McCaffrey fumble and getting handed a short field by Luter’s mistake.

Surprise: The unexpected hero of the game appeared to be Jauan Jennings

For all of the chatter deservedly afforded San Francisco’s incredible group of playmakers, Jennings was the guy who made big plays Sunday. He threw a pass to McCaffrey on a throwback screen for the game’s first touchdown, then ran through a L’Jarius Sneed tackle on a slant for a receiving score. He converted a third-and-5 with a broken tackle, started off the final drive of regulation with a 23-yard catch and drew a drive-extending holding penalty against Trent McDuffie on third down in overtime.

What changed: The Chiefs found their own hero

A random player always seems to emerge with a big game in the Super Bowl for the Chiefs. To the ranks of Bashaud Breeland and Damien Williams, we can add a player who was highlighted as an X factor both in the Super Bowl preview and in the live podcast I did from Las Vegas with Mina Kimes, Domonique Foxworth and Kevin Clark.

Leo Chenal, welcome to immortality. As expected, the 49ers carved out a heavy workload for fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who had an early catch and played 59% of the offensive snaps. And as expected, the Chiefs generally matched by playing their base defense, which meant Chenal on the field at linebacker alongside Nick Bolton and Willie Gay.

Chenal had a huge game. He forced the early McCaffrey fumble that prevented the Chiefs from falling behind on the opening possession. He’s the one who blocked the Moody extra point, limiting the 49ers to a three-point lead and changing the course of the rest of the fourth quarter. He also hit Jennings for a loss of 8 yards on a frantic checkdown from Brock Purdy, where he formed an excellent one-two in defending a boot concept alongside George Karlaftis.

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1:11

Kelce to SVP: “I hope we can keep this team so we can do it all over again”

Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce joins Scott Van Pelt to discuss winning his third Super Bowl after defeating the 49ers.

The other unlikely hero was Hardman, who was ignominiously traded from the Jets in midseason. He had a 77-yard day in the meaningless Week 18 game against the Chargers, but in competitive contests, his second stint with the Chiefs had produced 10 catches for 46 yards and three runs for a combined minus-2 yards. His most notable contribution had been fumbling through the end zone for a touchback against the Bills in the divisional round, a move that led Reid to limit Hardman to one offensive snap against the Ravens the following week.

With Kadarius Toney inactive and Skyy Moore failing to play a single snap, though, Hardman found a role and ran with it. He brought in the 52-yarder that served as Kansas City’s only explosive play on offense for a chunk of the game. With a title looming, the Chiefs went back to Hardman, used him on the Corndog motion and got him open for a Lombardi-clinching score. While Hardman’s red zone work had been disastrous, the threat of him on the jet sweep had to be an alert for the 49ers, and it allowed the Chiefs to get a wide-open receiver in the flat with a championship on the line.


Shanahan the scapegoat?

One trope that comes up repeatedly in dramatic losses, especially about a team that has come up just short, is landing on a scapegoat for the defeat. Two weeks ago, it was easier to blame Lions coach Dan Campbell than it was to point the finger at Kindle Vildor, Jahmyr Gibbs, Josh Reynolds, Taylor Decker or an absent pass rush apart from Aidan Hutchinson. Quarterbacks and head coaches get a disproportionate amount of the praise when teams succeed and can get a similar percentage of the blame when they fail.

You’re probably going to hear one stat in every piece of Super Bowl coverage you consume this week: Kyle Shanahan has now lost three Super Bowls after holding a double-digit lead. I wrote about Shanahan’s role in each of the first two defeats. When the Patriots came back from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Falcons, I criticized the then-Falcons offensive coordinator for throwing the ball at the end of a drive when two runs and a field goal probably would have ended the game. When the Chiefs came back to beat the 49ers at the end of the 2020 season, I didn’t take issue with Shanahan’s playcalling, but it was clear to see his lack of aggression and refusal to trust an excellent offense came back to bite him in a 31-20 defeat. He obviously deserved credit for helping his teams get those leads, but after seeing him play it conservatively in other big games (resulting in both wins and losses), I was concerned he would be at a disadvantage with game management again Sunday.

While nobody feels good about losing in the Super Bowl, I can’t raise those same complaints about Shanahan’s decision-making this time. The 49ers didn’t use their timeouts at the end of the first half to try to get the ball back while the Chiefs were deep in their territory, and he sent McCaffrey out for a meaningless 6-yard run instead of simply kneeling with 20 seconds left to end the half, but those weren’t dramatically damaging to his team.

Instead, Shanahan made arguably one of the most aggressive decisions he has ever made as a coach, and it nearly helped his team win the game. Facing a fourth-and-3 in the red zone while trailing 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, I’m not sure anybody expected him to do anything besides send out Moody for a short field goal. A kick would have tied the game, and after Campbell was lambasted by the media for being aggressive in the NFC title game, Shanahan didn’t seem likely to get aggressive.

ESPN’s win probability model showed going for it to be slight favorite and a 1% win probability swing. Shanahan hasn’t always made decisions in line with win probability models, but he chose to do so here. He left his offense on the field, and Purdy found George Kittle for a 3-yard conversion. Two plays later, Purdy hit Jennings for a touchdown. Instead of simply “taking the points” and tying the game, Shanahan’s offense stayed on the field and took the lead instead. The 49ers then failed on the extra point, which was taken from the 15-yard line, the exact distance from which Moody would have attempted his field goal to tie the game.

Instead, the worst decision of the game was a call by Reid, who helped swing the last Super Bowl game between these two by attempting and converting a fourth-and-short on an early touchdown drive. In the third quarter, the Chiefs faced a fourth-and-1 on their own 11-yard line and elected to punt. While the risk of turning the ball over in your own territory is huge, the likelihood of conversion and the reality that a punt will still give the opposition solid field position makes going for it in those situations a better proposition than many think. (The Ravens, notably, went for it on fourth-and-1 on their own 34-yard line in the AFC title game two weeks ago, converted and then scored their only touchdown of the game.)

I’m going to rely on the NFL’s Next Gen Stats model here, which had the ball 0.6 yards away from being converted for a first down. By this model, Reid cost the Chiefs 5.1 points of win probability by punting as opposed to attempting to move the chains. The Chiefs had been stuffed in short yardage, but as we saw with the Mahomes triple-option concept the Chiefs would later hit for a pair of first downs, there were other ways to pick up that half-yard or so.


Did Shanahan make a mistake in overtime?

When Harrison Butker’s kick sent the game into overtime, the Chiefs and 49ers became the first two teams to play under the league’s new playoff OT format, instituted after that legendary Bills-Chiefs game from the 2021 postseason. Unlike regular-season overtime, which can end on an opening-drive touchdown, playoff overtime guarantees both teams a chance to touch the ball and for the team that gets the ball second to match what the first team did on their drive before the game goes to sudden death.

The 49ers won the coin toss, and Shanahan elected to take the ball first. Since it’s the first time anyone has had to make that decision and a coach who has lost twice in the Super Bowl subsequently lost a third time, he has naturally come in for criticism about his choice. I’ll start this one with the answer: I agree with Shanahan’s decision, in part because neither choice a coach can make is clearly better than the other.

There’s an obvious benefit to deferring and getting the second possession of overtime, in that a team gets to see what happens first, which can then inform decision-making throughout the drive. When the 49ers kicked a field goal, the Chiefs knew they had to at least match with a field goal if they wanted to win. Having that knowledge allows the other team to make more informed decisions about playcalling and decision-making, which has its own intrinsic value.

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0:30

Kyle Shanahan: We all hurt after Super Bowl loss

Kyle Shanahan describes the locker room after the 49ers’ loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.

This came up when the Chiefs faced a fourth-and-1 on their own 34-yard line. If the Chiefs had started overtime with the ball and didn’t have any sort of score established, Reid might consider punting deep in that situation and hoping his team can get the ball back on defense, knowing that a stuff would already leave the 49ers in field goal range for a title-winning kick. Instead, since Reid knew he needed a field goal, they went for it, converted and eventually scored a touchdown to win the game.

As Shanahan noted in his postgame news conference, the value of getting the ball first is to get in position to have the third possession of overtime, where you can win with a field goal and without having to hand the ball back to your opponent. If you take the ball and start with a touchdown, you’re putting your opponent in an incredibly difficult bind, given that they both have to score a touchdown to match you and come up with a stop on the next drive to get the ball back. (Indeed, I suspect teams that get the ball second and need a touchdown to tie will try to win the game by going for two after their score.)

Shanahan’s offense was able to produce only a field goal on the opening possession, but even then, a stop from the defense at any point would have won the game, while the Chiefs would have been incentivized to kick a field goal to extend the game if they faced a fourth down in kicking range.

On top of that, Shanahan’s defense was likely exhausted after an 11-play drive from Kansas City at the end of regulation. Remember that the 49ers stopped the Chiefs on a three-and-out in the third quarter, but after being rushed back onto the field after the muffed punt, Wilks’ defense immediately allowed a touchdown pass to Valdes-Scantling on the first play of the new possession. Whether you want to focus on the game theory side of the equation or the human element of chasing down Mahomes again after a short break, choosing to go with the offense first probably was the right call for Shanahan. Per Kalyn Kahler of The Athletic, several Chiefs players said they were going to start overtime on defense if they won the coin toss, so it doesn’t sound like it would have played out differently if Kansas City had been the one making the decision.

Should Shanahan be criticized for getting away from the run? Again, I’m not seeing it. The 49ers ran the ball just over 45% of the time in the first half and 42.5% of the time in the second half and overtime. Purdy threw the ball six straight times and on nine of the 49ers’ first 10 plays in the third quarter, but that’s probably because the Chiefs were loading up the box and daring him to throw:

The 49ers spent that entire sequence behind schedule because none of the passes worked. (McCaffrey’s lone run went for no gain.) When the offense got going again, it was with the passing game, which produced gains of 17, 9 and 20 yards across a four-play span to get in position for the fourth-down conversion and the touchdown pass to Jennings. The 49ers ran the ball 17 times in the second half, but those runs produced only two first downs. Nine of their 11 first downs after Usher’s halftime appearance came via the pass or penalty.

Pinning the loss on Purdy would also be too simplistic. It wasn’t his best game, but he didn’t look overawed by Steve Spagnuolo’s exotic blitzes. The 49ers left a few plays on the field, in part because of some passes that fell in the window between drops and misplaced passes, particularly to Deebo Samuel. When Purdy’s first read was there, he was generally excellent; on throws within 3 seconds of getting the ball, the second-year quarterback went 17-of-22 for 189 yards and a 9.7% completion percentage over expectation (CPOE). After 3 seconds, he was just 6-of-16 for 66 yards with a minus-13.7% CPOE. When he didn’t get the look he expected or hoped to see, he seemed to struggle getting deep into his progression or creating out of structure.

For the 49ers, agonizingly, this might have been their best shot at winning a title over the next few years. They’re the league’s third-oldest team and got mostly healthy seasons from their stars beyond safety Talanoa Hufanga (knee) until Greenlaw tore his Achilles. They’re yet to feel the impact of the missing first-round talent from the Trey Lance deal in 2021, and with Purdy making $870,000, they have been able to spread the money for their quarterback position elsewhere on the roster. While they’ve been consistently competitive, it’s tough to count on winning the 1-seed while having everyone who’s playing well now playing at the same level next season. Ask the Eagles, who looked like favorites to make it back to the Super Bowl this time last year and fell apart during December and January.


The real MVP … again

When these two teams played in Super Bowl LIV, Mahomes won the MVP award. While giving the appropriate praise to Mahomes for leading a comeback victory, I felt like the best player on the field was defensive tackle Chris Jones.

Well, here we are four years later, and while Mahomes won the real Super Bowl MVP Award, the best player on the field was the guy harassing Purdy all night. Playing what might have been his final game in a Chiefs uniform, Jones dominated at the line of scrimmage. While he didn’t record a sack, NFL Next Gen Stats credited him with six pressures, second only to Bosa’s 10. (As was the case with the last game between these two, Bosa also would have been my MVP pick if the 49ers had won.)

Jones didn’t score any touchdowns, but he forced two plays that should have been touchdowns into incompletions with pressure. One came early in the fourth quarter, when Samuel badly beat Sneed on a play-action concept. Purdy was rolling out and saw Samuel get open, but Jones defeated right guard Spencer Burford, who came in for the injured Jon Feliciano. Jones’ pressure forced an incompletion, although the 49ers would get their touchdown later on the drive.

On the final offensive snap of the season for the 49ers, Jones saved a touchdown. Here, he got some help: The 49ers didn’t block him or blitzing safety Justin Reid, as it appeared right tackle Colton McKivitz worked to the wrong defender. Jones ran free and forced a wild incompletion from Purdy. If he’d had time, Purdy might have seen Sneed slip in coverage against Aiyuk, leaving the star wideout wide-open for an easy touchdown. He also had Jennings on a pivot route to the outside for a first down.

Jones also forced the checkdown to Jennings that lost 8 yards, while his penetration on a third-and-2 McCaffrey run forced the back to cut outside, where he lost a yard on the snap that set up the decision to go for it on fourth-and-3. The Chiefs blitzed more than 57% of the time when Jones wasn’t on the field and produced a pressure rate of only 14%. Spagnuolo dropped the blitz rate by more than 10 points when Jones was between the lines, but the plays with the star tackle on the field produced a pressure rate north of 51%. Jones was essential.

Spagnuolo also had a great game, with a critical pressure coming out of the two-minute warning serving as the most obvious and memorable snap of the game for the stalwart defensive coordinator. Facing a third-and-5 on the Kansas City 35-yard line, a 49ers conversion would have forced the Chiefs to use their final two timeouts and start worrying about whether they would ever get the ball back.

Instead, Spagnolo sent a six-man blitz and managed to get McDuffie (who was excellent all game) unblocked on the left side of the line. The 2022 first-round pick leaped and batted away Purdy’s would-be slant to Jennings, forcing the 49ers to attempt a long field goal. Kittle was in the backfield and you could argue the tight end should have scanned and come across the formation to block McDuffie, but I’m not sure he would have gotten there quickly enough, and there was pressure on him from the existing side.

Those plays will loom in 49ers hearts for years to come. Convert the third-and-5 and they might have been able to run down the clock before a field goal attempt. Pick up a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime and they would have put the Chiefs into a nearly impossible bind. Stop the Chiefs on fourth-and-1 and they’re throwing a parade. Last time, it was a deep pass that just fell through the hands of Emmanuel Sanders that would have given the 49ers a late lead. This time, it was a bevy of missed opportunities to seal things. Shanahan & Co. will do whatever it takes to make it back to the Super Bowl. Next time, though, they’ll probably be hoping Mahomes, Jones and Spagnuolo aren’t on the other sideline.





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