SANTA CLARA, Calif.—They’re better than they were a month ago, which makes the 49ers feel somewhat satisfied. But they’re not better than the Chicago Bears. Oh maybe, as the echoes from the Niners locker room advised, they were close and they could have won, could have beaten the Bears.
You always hear that refrain when the underdog, the team with the losing record, puts up a fight—and that doesn’t mean the literal one that erupted on the Bears sideline in the fourth quarter—and makes a game of it.
Which is what the Niners did, but the Bears (11-4 and NFC North champions) made a win of it, 14-9, to nobody’s surprise.
Yes, the Niners, as they told us, had chances, including after they recovered a Chicago fumble with 1:52 left, the second takeaway of the game for a Niners team that hadn’t had a single one in two months, However, they lost the ball on downs.
It these Bears aren’t monsters of the NFL, much less of the Midway (circa 1940s) or ready to shuffle to a Super Bowl victory as the 1985 team, they’re strong enough, particularly on defense.
“They’ve got a very good front four, probably the best in the league,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said of the Bears. “Very good inside rushers.”
A major part of that defense is linebacker Khalil Mack, stupidly traded to Chicago by the Oakland Raiders just before the start of the season. It he isn’t the best in the league, he’s no worse than second. He’s the type of player who makes everyone else on his defense better—and that defense was effective anyway.
So, the 49ers could only get 279 yards offense, all but 54 passing. Nick Mullens, the Niners quarterback, threw 38 times. He did complete 22 for 241 yards but none for touchdowns—and one for an interception.
‘It was more a function of what we’re going against,” Shanahan said of the imbalanced run-pass ratio. “You would love to just run every play, to reverse that pass rush and everything. But the only thing they do better than stopping the pass is stopping the run . . . It’s tough.
“You get a gut feeling in what they’re doing .I definitely thought throwing the ball gave us the best chance to win.”
For a while, after three first-half field goals by Robbie Gould (an ex-Bear) the Niners had a 9-7 lead. But they lost opportunities to get touchdowns.
Early in the third period, Chicago looking very much the playoff team it is, drove 90 yards in 12 plays, over 7 minutes 43 seconds, in effect half the entire period. In the sequence quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed eight consecutive passes (he reached 10 in a row after the TD).
That’s what winning teams do, take the ball and stuff it and throw it successfully, in the less than half-filled stands at Levi’s Stadium the chant resounded, “Let’s go Bears.” Presumably they didn’t mean Cal, up the road in Berkeley.
What Niners cornerback Richard Sherman meant when he threw a one-two punch during a sideline melee with 5:39 to play was, “Don’t try to push us around.” He was ejected as were two Bears receivers. That didn’t have an effect on the game, except to drag out what because of penalties and reviews seemed endless.
Trubisky was tackled on the sideline. “It got chippy,” said Sherman, acting as the overseer. “I’m not going to let our guys get pushed around. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. I couldn’t let the whole sideline go against one of my teammates. You have to go in there regardless of the circumstances.”
He went in and subsequently got thrown out, but as tight end George Kittle pointed out that sort of support builds unity for a 4-11 team which has one game left, next Sunday against the Rams in Los Angeles.
“We’ve got guys who are aggressive,” said Shanahan. “You make a lot of plays being aggressive. “That’s (Chicago) a real good team. I was happy and proud of how hard of how our guys fought in all three phases.
“I was hoping we would finish this year with a winning record a home (They were 4-4), so that was disappointing.”
Defeat invariably is, even against a better team.