SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The parade the San Francisco 49ers had hoped to be enjoying was being held a couple thousand miles away in Kansas City.
Instead of celebrating a record-tying sixth Super Bowl title that seemed so close, the Niners spent the morning Wednesday packing up their lockers, saying good-byes and wondering how what seemed to be a safe 10-point fourth-quarter lead disappeared so quickly in a 31-20 loss to the Chiefs.
"As an offense, as a team we've been in that situation multiple times and we answered the bell," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "It's tough when that one time you didn't. That's what people will remember. It's the world we live in. You just have to own up to it and be a man about it. It will fuel us in the offseason, fuel me in the offseason to come back better."
A remarkable turnaround season filled with memorable moments as the 49ers (15-4) became the third team ever to make the Super Bowl following a season with four or fewer wins, ended only in disappointment.
Garoppolo and the offense fell flat in the fourth quarter, the defense couldn't stop Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense and the Niners became the third team to lose a Super Bowl after leading by at least 10 points in the second half.
"It's like watching the 'Titanic,'" receiver Emmanuel Sanders said about watching the film. "You hope the ship don't sink. For some reason, the ship keeps sinking over and over."
The Niners appeared to be in great shape when they took over with a 20-10 lead and less than 12 minutes to play on an interception by Tarvarius Moore.
Garoppolo then completed a 12-yard pass on second down to George Kittle to make him 18 for 21 on the day. Garoppolo completed only 2 of his final 10 passes, faltering down the stretch.
A missed high pass to Deebo Samuel and a false start on Joe Staley led to a punt that set up the first of Kansas City's three fourth-quarter TDs.
That score came after Tyreek Hill got open on a 44-yard pass on third-and-15 as free safety Jimmie Ward had to guard against a big play over the middle and couldn't get over in time to break up the pass.
"It was a right call, it was a perfect throw and a great catch," Ward said. "Me being in the middle of the field, I really couldn't get over. ... The only way I would have played that better is if I would have guessed. I didn't have any choice."
San Francisco then went three-and-out on the next drive with Garoppolo's second-down pass to an open Kittle over the middle getting batted down at the line by Chris Jones.
After the Chiefs took the lead, Garoppolo missed an open Sanders behind the secondary on a third-down pass from the Kansas City 49.
"At some point you have to move on from it. It sucks," Garoppolo said. "Obviously, some throws I wish I had back, some throws I wish I made differently. The throw to E, I missed him, put a little too much on it."
A sack on the next play and a long TD run by Damien Williams put the game out of reach, leading to the offseason of wondering, "What if?"
"It was a collective effort," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "We had multiple opportunities to finish the game as a team. We fell short of that. There's no blame to be put on anybody."
The Niners now look to use the disappointment as motivation but first will come the inevitable changes that happen each year in the NFL. Key players like Sanders, Ward and defensive lineman Arik Armstead are all eligible to be free agents.
They each expressed a desire to return but it might be tough to bring them all back under the salary cap. There will be other moves as well as San Francisco looks to avoid the Super Bowl hangover that has plagued so many runners-up in the past.
Only three teams have bounced back from the disappointment of a loss in the title game to win it all the following year, with Dallas and Miami doing it in back-to-back seasons in 1971-72 and then the New England Patriots again in 2018.
Eight other Super Bowl losers returned to the game the next season only to lose again, including Buffalo three times. But 15 of the past 33 teams that lost in the Super Bowl failed to even make it back to the playoffs the following year, including the Los Angeles Rams this season.
"If it doesn't automatically turn into fuel for you, I think you're in the wrong sport," Kittle said. "I'm ready to roll."
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