MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In the long run, 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said, he’ll remember his journey to the Super Bowl journey fondly. “A lot of fun,” even, the NFL’s rookie defensive player of the year said Sunday night.
But in the aftermath of a 31-20 loss to the Chiefs, the season of growth faded to back of mind for Bosa and teammates who had relinquished a 10-point fourth-quarter lead.
What were Bosa’s thoughts right then and there after letting their grasp on the Lombardi slip?
“Pissed,” Bosa said, hunched over the ice pack strapped around his right shoulder.
His teammates agreed.
“It is a terrible feeling, you know?” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said.
The Chiefs and 49ers traded leads three times Sunday, neither club’s advantage too secure for the overwhelming majority of the game.
But until 6:13 remained in Super Bowl LIV, San Francisco hadn’t trailed in two quarters. And in the third quarter, the 49ers defense wreaked havoc on Kansas City.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes minimized damage on the first of two consecutive errant plays. With 6:22 to play in the third quarter, he dropped back on second-and-5. Bosa had broken through the Chiefs offensive line and knocked the ball loose. Mahomes dove onto and recovered it. Still, the Chiefs faced third-and-12 at their own 39. When Mahomes heaved the ball downfield toward receiver Tyreek Hill, Niners linebacker Fred Warner instead jumped in front, boxing Hill out for the interception.
“It was a third-and-long, he tried to force a throw that wasn’t there and I was in a good position and made the catch,” Warner said of Mahomes’ first interception in 164 postseason pass attempts (he’d thrown 11 touchdowns in that stretch).
Still, Warner’s postgame feeling: “Not that good.”
The gloom continued. How did the 49ers, despite two interceptions and four sacks, let Mahomes dance out of the pocket so ruthlessly when it mattered most? How, on third-and-15, did the same defense that had just intercepted two passes intended for Hill let him burn them for a costly 44-yard catch? How, on second-and-7, did All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman let receiver Sammy Watkins juke the 31-year-old, beating him on the inside release? Watkins’ 38-yard snag carried his team to the red zone, where running back Damien Williams would score the game-sealing touchdown three plays later.
“I just knew it was one-on-one from watching film,” Watkins said, nodding to San Francisco’s NFC championship game win over the Packers. “I just thank Davante Adams because I saw him kill him on the inside release.”
A typically eloquent Sherman was left with little to say.
“He made a play,” Sherman said of Watkins. He dismissed the notion that his defense had tired or the Chiefs had changed tactics along the way to 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
“We just made mistakes,” Sherman said. “It was just mistakes—self-inflicted. We felt confident the whole game.
“I’d still describe the feeling as confident. It’s just unfortunate.”
San Francisco’s offensive counterparts agreed. “Pretty brutal,” tight end George Kittle described the loss, longing for another half of football to alter the outcome.
But the 49ers know these chances come few and far between. Their Lombardi drought wasn’t as drastic as the Chiefs’ of 50 years but still dates back to 1994.
Who knows what awaits in 2020 for a team that in one season improved from 4-12 to 13-3?
“Put yourself in my shoes for a second—it is tough,” said 35-year-old left tackle Joe Staley, whose 13 seasons with the franchise now encompass two Super Bowl losses and a five-year playoff drought. “I’m sorry. This is super disappointing. This is very hard being in this moment right now.
“You get toward the end of your career, and you realize how rare these opportunities are.
“The emotions are still raw and real for me right now.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein