The 49ers had 1:14 to score a possible go-ahead touchdown and escape Sunday with a comeback victory against one of the best teams in the NFC.
But quarterback Nick Mullens didn’t give his team that chance to beat the Chicago Bears (11-4) because of a crucial mistake on fourth and 4. San Francisco fell 14-9, ending their mini two-game winning streak and closing the season 4-4 at Levi’s Stadium.
Mullens, who rolled right after feeling pressure up the middle, had an open running lane up the right sideline. But instead of taking it, where it appeared he could have gained some 20 yards and gotten out of bounds, he threw long to Marquise Goodwin near the goal line.
It landed well beyond Goodwin’s reach.
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“I’ve just got to handle the situation better,” Mullens said. “I should have ran. I didn’t run.
“In the heat of battle, a lot of things are happening fast, split-second decisions. Saw ‘Quise down the field. Tried to give him a chance instead of making the simple play. I didn’t make the simple play.”
Mullens reacted to his mistake right away. It was arguably the most glaring miscue of his impressive seven-game run as the starter.
With 241 yards passing Sunday, Mullens now has 1,995 for the season, third-most in a seven-game stretch since the merger in 1970. And no 49ers quarterback has thrown for more than 220 yards in seven straight games since Jeff Garcia in 2000.
Coach Kyle Shanahan was impressed with his second-year quarterback, despite the late-game mistake. Even Mullens’ lone interception wasn’t an egregious error. It was a pass that arguably should have been caught by Goodwin but deflected right to linebacker Danny Trevathan deep in Bears’ territory, preventing the 49ers from taking a lead in the fourth quarter.
“Going against that defense is a very big challenge, and it’s as good of a pass rush as I’ve seen. And that, tied with the sound coverages and scheme, that’s a challenge,” Shanahan said. “He did a good job today, especially throwing it 38 times, protecting the ball fairly well. I know we’d like to have that one back, but definitely wasn’t a bad decision. Just a hair off ‘Quise’s hand. He hung in there. Everyone misses a couple, but he also made a couple that weren’t there. A couple off-schedule plays that were very impressive. I thought Nick, under the circumstances, played very well.”
Breida, Pettis, Celek sidelined with injuries
A theme from the 49ers’ losses this season popped up again Sunday: injuries to key players on offense. Matt Breida’s season-long ankle injury was aggravated early in the second quarter.
Rookie Dante Pettis, the team’s most productive receiver for the past month, suffered an MCL injury minutes later. Then, tight end Garrett Celek went down with a concussion. All three were ruled out after the teams returned from halftime.
Pettis’ injury seems likely to keep him out of the season finale against the Rams. He was replaced at “X” receiver by Goodwin, who had been passed over by Pettis the last two games to allow Pettis more reps during a team-wide youth movement with the playoffs out of reach.
Goodwin had three catches for 29 yards, giving him four receptions for 36 yards since returning two weeks ago following his two-game absence to deal with a family issue.
The 49ers ran for a season-low 47 yards with Breida out for three quarters. Four of their worst rushing performances of the season have come in December. They had just three rushing attempts after halftime, and Shanahan asked Mullens to throw the ball 38 times.
“You would love to just run it every play, especially versus that pass rush and everything, but the only thing that they do better than stopping the pass is stopping the run,” Shanahan said. “... Definitely thought throwing the ball there, when we decided, I’m sure you could see, gave us the best chance to win the game.”
49ers finally get takeaways
The 49ers had just five takeaways going into Sunday, easily the fewest in the NFL. They increased that total to seven and could have had more. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw an ill-advised backward pass to running back Tarik Cohen that was broken up by K’Waun Williams and recovered by DeForest Buckner.
Rookie cornerback Tarvarius Moore punched the ball out of receiver Allen Robinson’s hands in the fourth quarter, setting up San Francisco’s final drive before Mullens’ fourth-down gaffe. Rookie safety Marcell Harris appeared to rip a ball from Robinson in the third quarter, but his knee was down just before the ball was jarred loose.
Williams had an interception in the end zone taken away by a holding penalty on linebacker Fred Warner. Jordan Howard scored one of Chicago’s two touchdowns three plays later.