At one point late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, as they tried to salt away the clock and runaway with a 10-point lead, the 49ers' win probability hovered above 95 percent. They wound up losing by 11 points after Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs scored touchdowns on three straight drives in a five-minute window late in the fourth quarter. Obviously, to squander a 10-point lead and fall behind by 11 points in a span of five minutes, mistakes had to have been made by the 49ers. This wasn't just a case of one or two plays changing the outcome of the game. A whole lot had to go wrong for the 49ers to lose.
We all know about Sammy Watkins burning Richard Sherman for 38 yards to set up the game-winning touchdown. We know about the game-winning touchdown itself, a real-life example of how football really is a game of inches. We know about Frank Clark's sack to end the 49ers' short-lived attempted game-winning drive. And we know about the Damien Williams touchdown run that officially sealed the result.. We know about
But what about the plays that won't be remembered years down the line? What about everything that transpired in between those moments, the unheralded plays that swung the game in favor of the Chiefs and away from the 49ers? All of the aforementioned plays were game-changers, but those plays were only made possible due to a confluence of events. A few smaller plays also had to go in the Chiefs' favor.
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With that in mind, let's run through seven under-the-radar plays that shifted Super Bowl LIV. But first, it's worth noting that the following plays were not considered because they were deemed to be plays that everyone will already remember for the rest of time. In other words, the plays listed below aren't unheralded:
- All of the scoring plays
- All of the interceptions
- Both of the Chiefs' fourth-down conversions in the first half
- Kyle Shanahan not using his timeouts at the end of the first half ( )
- Third-and-forever: How Mahomes and Hill sparked the Chiefs' comeback (you can read an in-depth breakdown of that play, with commentary from players and coaches, )
- Mahomes' downfield completion to Watkins on the following drive
- Clark's sack of Garoppolo on fourth down to end the 49ers' attempted game-winning drive
With that, we begin with the first play of the fourth quarter. From there, the list will unfold chronologically.
1. Kwon Alexander drops an interception
Trailing by 10 points at the onset of the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were in the process of mounting a drive that appeared, at one point, to be leading to at least a field goal before Mahomes saw an inaccurate pass bounce off Hill's arms and into Tarvarius Moore's hands for an interception at the 49ers' 20-yard line. But there was a chance for the 49ers to intercept Mahomes far earlier on that series. And if they had come down with that interception, they would've set up their offense with field position in Chiefs' territory; there's also the possibility their defense would've reached the end zone all on their own.
It happened on the first snap of the fourth quarter. On first-and-10 from their own 46, Mahomes dropped back to pass, faked a handoff, and then proceeded to get flushed from the pocket to his left. On the run, Mahomes tried to squeeze in a pass toward a blanketed Hill on the nearest sideline. The ball never made it that far.
Lurking underneath, 49ers inside linebacker Kwon Alexander broke up the pass around midfield. He got two hands on the ball. It was obvious by his reaction that he knew he missed an opportunity for a takeaway.
It wouldn't have been an easy catch. Mahomes released the ball near the 40-yard line. His pass, as almost all of them do, had some heat on it. Alexander was standing near midfield. But if he had managed to make the catch, he had some room to carry the ball deep into Chiefs' territory. In front of him would've been Mahomes, the offensive line, and Williams -- who was in the middle of the field and off-screen. There's a chance Williams would've caught him.
Hill might've even managed to catch up to him with his road-runner speed. Alexander scoring a touchdown wouldn't have been guaranteed. But at the very least, the 49ers would've had the ball deep in Chiefs territory instead of starting with the ball at their own 20 after Moore's interception.
It was difficult but catchable:
Their offense ended up gaining 17 yards on the ensuing drive before punting the ball back to the Chiefs, who proceeded to score three straight touchdowns. Another touchdown by the 49ers on that fateful drive likely would've iced the game. If Alexander had caught that ball, the 49ers wouldn't have needed to drive far to put the dagger in the Chiefs.
2. Garoppolo doesn't spot an open man
On that drive in question, the 49ers were trying to kill the game with one more touchdown. At the very least, they wanted to use more time than they eventually did (only 3:04 of game clock). They had a chance to do exactly that but failed to convert. The Chiefs' defensive line getting pressure was the key to both plays.
Let's start with the first one: a second-and-9 from their own 39 with 9:52 remaining in the game. On the play, Garoppolo targeted a well-covered Deebo Samuel over the middle, but he threw high and incomplete.
It wasn't as easy to spot on the broadcast version, but in the upper portion of the screen, you can see 49ers receiver Kendrick Bourne completely uncovered in the flat. It's easier to spot with the All-22.
If Garoppolo had thrown to Bourne, the 49ers would've picked up another first down and crossed the 50. Instead, the incomplete pass stopped the clock. They punted two plays later.
This isn't just a case of blaming Garoppolo for missing an open man. The Chiefs deserve credit for forcing the miss by bringing pressure. As soon as Garoppolo looked up after a play-fake, he had Chiefs inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens bearing down on him. Garoppolo never had time to get to a second read, which is why he tried to jam the ball into Samuel. If the blitz up the middle hadn't arrived, Garoppolo would've had time to cycle through his reads and to get the ball to Bourne in space.
3. Pressure flushes Garoppolo from the pocket
This is where things really began to unravel for the 49ers' offense. Before the next play, left tackle Joe Staley false-started to turn a third-and-9 into a third-and-14.
To convert a third-and-14, the 49ers' offensive line needed to provide stellar protection to allow the routes to develop downfield -- the kind of protection the Chiefs' offensive line afforded Mahomes on his third-and-15 conversion to Hill on the ensuing drive. Garpppolo did not get that level of protection. Almost immediately, he was chased from the pocket and forced to scramble out of bounds for a minimal gain. The 49ers were forced to punt.
Clark was held without a sack until later in the fourth quarter, but he deserves credit for beating Staley around the edge and forcing Garoppolo to abandon the pocket. Rushing on the opposite side of the line, Terrell Suggs also beat 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey. It also seemed like the entire timing of the play was thrown off by Chiefs defensive lineman Tanoh Kpassagnon, who timed the snap perfectly -- he might've even shot off the line a split-second too soon and could've been flagged for being offside.
You'll see his jump below -- he's lined up next to Suggs on the left side of the screen.
It went uncalled. He was able to penetrate the interior of the line. Pressure arrived around the edge. And the play was over before it could even really begin.
The 49ers punted. And the Chiefs ripped off 21 unanswered to steal the Lombardi Trophy.
4. Travis Kelce draws a pass-interference penalty
It flies under the radar, but not only did the Chiefs have to convert a third-and-15 on their drive to trim the 10-point deficit to three points, but three plays after that conversion, they faced another third-and-long. From the 49ers' 21-yard line, the Chiefs converted a third-and-10, gaining 20 yards via penalty.
On the play, Mahomes saw that he had tight end Travis Kelce in one-on-one coverage with 49ers defensive back Tarvarius Moore. That's a mismatch. Kelce burned Moore. Mahomes slightly underthrew the pass. And Moore never got his head turned around. He interfered with Kelce in the end zone and as a result, the ball was moved to the 1-yard line, where the Chiefs would score from one play later.
The call can't be questioned.
It wasn't surprising how easily Kelce beat Moore. What was surprising was the 49ers' defensive alignment.
For one, they sent five after Mahomes.
Throughout the season, the 49ers' front-four was so adept at generating pressure that the 49ers seldom felt the need to send extra rushers. They posted the league's fourth-lowest blitz rate at 20.9 percent, but generated pressure at the second-highest rate at 28.7 percent. Maybe after only rushing four on the third-and-15 that preceded this third-and-10 the 49ers felt like they needed a fifth rusher to pressure Mahomes. It backfired.
Behind the five rushers, the 49ers lined up in man-to-man across the board with one safety, Jaquiski Tartt, providing help over the top.
Hill was left alone to the right, lined up just inside the numbers. I'm guessing Mahomes knew almost immediately he was going to give Kelce a chance against an inferior defender. What he did well was prevent the safety over the top from providing help. He accomplished this with his eyes, which scanned the right portion of the field after he gathered the shotgun snap. By the time Mahomes looked at Kelce and released the ball, Tartt didn't have enough time to recover and make up ground to the opposite side of the field.
For Kelce, it was an enticing matchup. He burned Moore with ease because he's Travis Kelce, the league's best pass-catching tight end.
"I'm a little surprised by that call by Robert Saleh," Fox's Troy Aikman said on the broadcast after watching the replay.
On the next play, Mahomes hit Kelce for a touchdown. They were within three points. If the Chiefs hadn't gotten that third-down conversion, they would've been forced to kick a field goal, which means their next touchdown would've only tied the game instead of giving them a four-point lead.
5. Chris Jones prevents a first down
Down three with 6:13 remaining, the Chiefs still needed to generate a stop to get the ball back to Mahomes. Their defense came through with a three-and-out. The key play went down as an incomplete pass from Garoppolo on second-and-5 from the 25.
The play-call has drawn some criticism, but 49ers coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan shouldn't be blamed for drawing up an open pass to star tight end George Kittle. For some bizarre reason, the Chiefs tried to cover Kittle with 37-year-old pass rusher Terrell Suggs, who lined up over the right tackle and then retreated as he attempted to locate and cover Kittle.
Suggs was beat.
Kittle was wide open for a first down over the middle.
But the play was ruined at the line of scrimmage by Chiefs superstar defensive lineman Chris Jones.
Jones failed to penetrate the backfield. But knowing he wasn't going to impact the play with pressure, he waited for Garoppolo to begin his throwing motion, got his hands up, and batted down the pass.
On the ensuing third down, the Chiefs brought the blitz and pressure arrived, forcing Garoppolo to fire incomplete. The 49ers punted. Watkins beat Sherman downfield. Mahomes delivered a perfectly weighted pass. And Williams barely breached the goal line to give the Chiefs the lead -- one they wouldn't relinquish.
6. Pressure forces Garoppolo into a bad decision
Let's go back to that third down, though, because there was actually an opening for the 49ers to exploit. On the third-and-5, the Chiefs sent six rushers. The last of those six, Ben Niemann, came on a delayed blitz. He timed it perfectly, shot through the gap, and hit Garoppolo as he essentially threw the ball away.
There was an open man on the play. Once again, it was Kittle over the middle.
He was open before pressure arrived.
Garoppolo didn't see him. The pressure arrived. And the Chiefs got the stop they needed.
7. Garoppolo overthrows a go-ahead touchdown
This might be the only play that isn't unheralded, but it needs to be mentioned because, in spite of all of the aforementioned plays that went against the 49ers, the Lombardi Trophy was still there for the taking. All the 49ers needed was for Garoppolo to make a throw that was available.
He was open by one or two yards, but Garoppolo missed him by three or four.
It wasn't an easy throw. It required roughly 50 air yards. But it was open. It was available. If he had hit Sanders, the 49ers still would've had to stop Mahomes with roughly 90 seconds remaining, but they would've had a late lead. If that was, say, Samuel running that route, he probably catches that pass because he's faster than Sanders.
But it was Sanders, not Samuel, wide open downfield. And Garoppolo flat out missed him.
Sitting in that end zone at Hard Rock Stadium, when Garoppolo released the football, it was impossible to judge the throw. It felt like that ball hung in the air for an eternity. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment, tracking the ball mid-flight, seeing just how much separation there was between Sanders and the trailing defenders, thinking the 49ers were about to take the lead, and then being shocked by just how much Garoppolo missed Sanders when the ball came crashing down from above.
On the next play, the Clark sacked Garoppolo to give the ball back to the Chiefs' offense. Two plays later, the Chiefs led by 11. A minute and 12 seconds later, the Chiefs won the Super Bowl.
For that to happen, everything that needed to go right for the Chiefs did go right. Conversely, to lose that game, everything that needed to go wrong for the 49ers did go wrong.
Sanders probably put it best on Wednesday when he compared it to the sinking of the Titanic.
"I watched the Super Bowl at least five or six times," Sanders said, per the Bay Area News Group, "and it's like when you watch a movie like the Titanic and hope the ship doesn't sink, and the ship sinks over and over."