Second-half duds have become routine for the 49ers this season, but Sunday’s slow-building collapse against the New York Jets stood out because of how pathetic their opponent seemed to be.
On national television last week, the Jets looked like a team that had given up on the season. They lost 41-10 in front of their home fans, had to travel across the country on a short week and started a greenhorn quarterback, Bryce Petty, who threw an interception on the second play of the game.
When they fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, the Jets seemed to go belly-up. Against this year’s 49ers squad, however, no opponent is dead until the final whistle, something New York reconfirmed by scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime, and then running through San Francisco’s rapidly deteriorating defense for the game-winning touchdown.
The 23-17 loss was the 12th straight for a franchise eager for a reason – any reason – to give coach Chip Kelly and his staff a second season in San Francisco.
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Kelly usually points to what he describes as “self-inflicted wounds” – turnovers or penalties – after his team’s losses. On Sunday, the 49ers had the only takeaway of the game while the Jets had nine penalties to three for San Francisco.
Instead, Sunday’s loss was marked by injuries.
The 49ers began the contest without their best offensive lineman, Joe Staley, and quickly lost center Daniel Kilgore to a leg injury. Which is why Kelly was surprised when the 49ers were able to run the ball against the Jets early, including two big runs by Carlos Hyde that set up the team’s first-quarter touchdowns.
Hyde – who had runs of 49, 25 and 20 yards – finished with a career-high 193 rushing yards to go with a 7-yard touchdown catch.
“No, we didn’t think we could,” Kelly said when asked about his team’s running-game success. “I was really – to be honest with you – a little bit surprised at how well we ran the ball. They were the fourth-best rush defense coming in … ”
When the 49ers lost two more offensive starters – tight end Vance McDonald to a shoulder injury and wide receiver Torrey Smith to a concussion – running the ball was all the 49ers could do. Their lack of firepower was reflected in quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s passing numbers.
At the end of the first quarter he was 7 of 7 for 95 yards with a touchdown and a perfect passer rating. For the remaining three quarters and overtime, he was 8 of 19 for 38 yards and finished with a middling passer rating of 84.3.
Kaepernick said the conservative play calls were in reaction to the injuries.
“Obviously, we had two linemen go down, two linemen that are very good for us,” he said. “So I think (Kelly) was trying to put us, our line, our offense in the best situation to go out and succeed.”
Even normally unflappable Phil Dawson contributed to the loss.
The 49ers kicker had connected on 14 straight field goals entering the game but missed kicks from 44 and 48 yards in the first half. His Jets counterpart, Nick Folk, was a 3 for 3 on the day, including a 50-yard kick to tie the score at 17-17 with 38 seconds left in regulation.
“It was a little bit of a sneaky day,” Dawson said of the conditions. “Sometimes the windier days are almost a little easier because it’s pretty obvious what the wind is doing. Today, that wasn’t the case. It would blow a little bit here, and then it would be the opposite. It would be one way and then the other.”
In overtime, Kelly decided to try to pick up a first down on fourth and 2 from New York’s 37-yard line instead of giving Dawson a chance for a 55-yard field goal. Even if he had made it, Kelly reasoned, the Jets could have won the game with a touchdown on their possession. If he had missed, the Jets would have only had a short distance to go for a game-winning field goal.
Besides, Hyde had averaged more than 12 yards a carry at that point in the game. He needed only two yards for the first down. Instead, the Jets held him to no gain, then overpowered a spent 49ers defense that tackled poorly in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Jets’ Bilal Powell gained 145 yards on the afternoon. His 19-yard touchdown run to win the game was New York’s longest run of the day.
“I think they got worn down,” Kelly said of his defense. “They were on the field too much because our offense couldn’t sustain and stay on the field. I think that’s kind of a by-product, to be honest with you.”