MIAMI — This is what the great ones do. They win a game that could have been lost, maybe should have been lost. The 49ers and their fans know all about it. They watched Joe Montana and Steve Young do it for them in the good old days.
Then on Sunday night in Super Bowl LIV, they saw Patrick Mahomes do it against them on what has to be one of the worst days.
A big lead, a competent offense, a stout defense. Or so it was believed. And what the Kansas City Chiefs disproved.
The Niners were ahead, 20-10. Only seven minutes remained. They had sacked Mahomes three times, had intercepted him twice. KC was stuck with a third down and 15 on its own 35.
It was the Niners' game. They were going to win their sixth Super Bowl, going to tie the record. Then it wasn’t. Suddenly, it all turned. That third and 15 became a first and 10 on the Niners' 21, a 44-yard gain.
In what seemed like moments, KC was ahead 31-20. The joy became disappointment. What we knew as Niners Magic was overwhelmed by Mahomes Magic.
“We just didn’t get it done,” said Kyle Shanahan, the Niners' third-year coach, “and it hurts. We had opportunities to win that and came up short. Kansas City played a good game. They were better than us today.”
Maybe better, period.
That third and 15 was arguably the play of the game. “I’m not sure what happened,” said Shanahan. “It looked like we were playing a zone and (Tyreek Hill) was allowed to hold on to the ball for a while.”
Mahomes looked like the MVP he was in the 2018 season. This night he merely was offensive player of the game. Under pressure, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looked like someone not ready for prime time.
Asked if the Chiefs confused Garoppolo, Shanahan said they didn’t. He said in the fourth quarter Garoppolo just missed slightly.
In the past two weeks, in the playoffs, the Niners kept the ball on the ground and kept the opponents on their heels. Did Shanahan stay with the run because that tactic worked or because, as some hinted, he didn’t want to expose Garoppolo?
“You always love to control the clock,” said Shanahan. “But we just do what we do. We tried to run the ball. We used play-action, converted third downs. I think the plays got a little more lopsided a little bit where we didn’t have 15-play drives.
“The last thing you’re thinking about when you’re up three points, the clock is not an issue. The issue is moving the chains, but if you move the chains then you wind the clock.”
The Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years. The Niners lost their second in eight years on the field, currently called Hard Rock Stadium but long known as Joe Robbie Stadium, where in January 1995 they won the fifth of their five championships.
In the closing minute of the first half, San Francisco, in front after a dominant stretch, regained the ball on its own 20 — and played as if the clock didn’t matter, failing to call timeouts.
Sure, a 42-yard completion to George Kittle was negated by offensive pass interference, but having Garoppolo kneel down as the second quarter ended is a bit unusual.
“They had three timeouts,” said Shanahan, “and it was 10-10. The last thing we were going to do was allow them to get the ball with three timeouts. Especially with their quarterback.”
Still, if the D makes a stop on third and 15, it’s as good as over.
Yet tackling Mahomes, who is so quick, so agile, accurate, is no simple task. Including the Super Bowl, KC trailed by 10 points or more in three straight postseason games.
Almost reminds you of the Niners in the 1980s.