SANTA CLARA — The San Francisco 49ers had no business being competitive against the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon.
With a six-game disparity in the standings, San Francisco (4-11) entered its Week 16 matchup against the as 3.5-point underdogs against the NFC North champion Bears (11-4) at Levi’s Stadium. Yet, somehow, the 49ers found themselves in a one-possession game with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter with the ball in Nick Mullens’ hands.
Unfortunately for Mullens, head coach Kyle Shanahan and the rest of the 49ers organization, bad decision making, undisciplined penalties and overall poor execution down the stretch against Chicago cost the 49ers the biggest upset of the season, as they fell to Chicago, 14-9, in their final home game of the season.
“The biggest thing is that you know that you had opportunities to win the game,” Mullens said. “You had opportunities to step up and make the big play but that didn’t happen. I think that’s the thing that hurts the worst.”
Entering Sunday’s affair, the 49ers were tasked with moving the ball against the NFL’s third-best defense. Giving up only 314 yards per game, Chicago also ranks first in the NFL in terms of turnover differential (+22).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the 49ers ranked dead last in the NFL with a -13 turnover differential.
Scoring the first six points of the afternoon, San Francisco looked to turn the tables on Chicago by securing the game’s first takeaway.
On a backwards pass from Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, San Francisco blew up running back Tarik Cohen, putting the ball on the ground. Forty Niners defensive tackle DeForest Buckner would recover.
On two additional occasions, San Francisco looked to strip the ball out out of the hands of Bears players, but officials would rule the runners downed by contact in both instances.
“It’s been a point of emphasis but you rarely get the opportunities we got in this game,” 49ers starting cornerback Richard Sherman said. “It’s more of a swarming mentality. Guys are playing free. Playing faster. It’s not one guy making the tackle, it’s three, four, five guys grabbing onto ‘em and then you can go for the strip.”
In addition to fumble recovery opportunities, the 49ers also picked off Trubisky, or so they thought.
Thanks to a pressure from Buckner, who flushed the second-year quarterback out of the pocket, Trubisky threw a pass straight into the chest of San Francisco cornerback K’Waun Williams. The interception, though, was negated, thanks to a holding penalty against 49ers linebacker Fred Warner.
“The receiver gave me a stutter-and-go and I collided with him late and that’s what they called,” Warner said. “It is what it is. It’s a tough deal.”
Seven plays later, Trubisky found wide receiver Anthony Miller in the front, left corner of the end zone to get the Bears on the board, giving Chicago a one-point lead.
Taking a 9-7 lead into the locker room after a Robbie Gould field goal (his third of the afternoon) to end the half, the 49ers had held Trubisky to only 137 yards through the air on 9-of-12 passing.
In the second half, Chicago gained a stranglehold on the game’s time of possession, holding the ball for 20 of the potential 30 minutes of game time.
“They had a good game plan for what we were doing,” Warner said. “We just had to get off of the field on some of those third downs make it a little more manageable in those situations.”
While Chicago milked the clock, the 49ers did not help themselves in the fourth quarter as safety Marcell Harris was called for a late hit on Trubisky, as the Bears quarterback slid feet-first in attempt to gain a first down.
The hit drew flags but more importantly incited a melee on Chicago’s sideline. Sherman found himself directly in the middle of the game-defining scuffle, throwing a pair of open-handed slaps at Bears wide receiver Joshua Bellamy.
The incident resulted in the ejection of Sherman, Bellamy and fellow Bears wideout Anthony Miller
“Sherman made it very clear to me that he was trying to get his brother’s back,” Shanahan said. “I respect the heck out of Sherm.”
At that point in the game, the 49ers trailed 14-9, after Bears running back Jordan Howard had found paydirt on a 2-yard run at the tail end of the third quarter.
After Sherman, Bellamy and Miller’s ejection, Chicago methodically ran the clock down to the two-minute warning before Tarvarius Moore punched the ball out of Allen Robinson’s hands as he gained a Bears first down to all but seal a Chicago victory.
Giving the ball back to Shanahan’s offense, led by Mullens, the 49ers set up shop on their own 24-yard line.
With a 25-yard pass to Kendrick Bourne, Mullens had the 49ers in range to complete a late-game comeback with 1:40 left on the clock.
After a pair of incomplete passes intended for tight end George Kittle, the 49ers found themselves up against the wall facing a fourth-and-4. Mullens took the snap and was flushed out to his right. Looking to have at least 10 yards of clean field ahead of him, Mullens opted to heave a pass 40 yards down field to a blanketed Marquise Goodwin, instead of tucking the ball to run. The pass sailed out of bounds.
“I’ve been replaying that play in my head since I walked off of the field,” Mullens said after the game. “If you look at the film, I stood there for 30 seconds. Just understanding what I did and how big of a mistake it was.”
Turning the ball over on downs, the 49ers watched the Bears line up in victory formation, fully cognizant of the opportunities that they squandered to take out a legitimate playoff contender.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” said Mullens. “We knew it was going to be tough. But we knew we’d have opportunities. So, it’s exactly what we wanted. We just didn’t take advantage and finish.”
Running back Matt Breida went down in the second quarter, appearing to tweak his left leg after a five-yard carry. He went to the medical tent, and then the locker room. He did not return with what was deemed to be an ankle injury.
Breida has dealt with persistent ankle injuries all season and was very limited in practice this past week. At the time of the injury, he had 20 yards on four carries.
Jeff Wilsonwould gain just 27 yards on his 11 carries the rest of the day.