A 49ers team that seemed ready to run away with a win against the hapless Chicago Bears in the first half ended up giving away the contest in the second half and spoiling the debut of their new stadium.
Colin Kaepernick, who looked masterful at times with a revamped arsenal of pass catchers in Week 1, committed four turnovers Sunday – including three interceptions – that allowed Chicago to first crawl back from a 17-point deficit, then take the lead, and eventually hold on for a 28-20 win. It was the Bears’ first victory on the road against the 49ers since their Super Bowl season in 1985.
The loss was the second three-interception game of Kaepernick’s career, the last coming in Week 2 last year in a blowout defeat at Seattle. A potential fourth interception Sunday was reversed after a replay review.
As was the case in Seattle last year, the 49ers finished the game without Vernon Davis. The tight end suffered an ankle injury when he was tackled from behind by Bears linebacker Jon Bostic in the fourth quarter. Jim Harbaugh had no update on Davis’ condition.
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“When you have a team down, you have to put your foot on their throat because nobody’s going to quit in this league,” 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin said. “That was evident tonight. They continued to play.”
Said receiver Michael Crabtree: “We need that killer instinct. We gave that game away.”
Crabtree again was the target on a last-ditch throw from Kaepernick in the end zone at game’s end, just as he was at the end of the 49ers’ Super Bowl defeat and last season’s NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle. The fourth-and-9 pass bounced off his hands incomplete and the Bears took over on downs.
With a win, the 49ers had a chance to take a one-game lead on Seattle, which lost earlier in the day to San Diego. Instead, they fell behind division-leading Arizona, which they will visit this week.
The loss also ruined what the 49ers had hoped would be a celebration of their new $1.2 billion stadium, and early on the venue had a definite party atmosphere.
As they did last week in Dallas, the 49ers pounced quickly, this time with a blocked punt that followed a three-and-out possession by the Bears to start the game. Three plays after that, Kaepernick found Crabtree for a short touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead.
There were 26 penalties in the game, 16 against the 49ers. That kept San Francisco from getting into a rhythm and taking advantage of their momentum.
It didn’t seem to matter early on.
After allowing 118 yards to Dallas tailback DeMarco Murray last week, the 49ers’ defense shut down Bears running back Matt Forte, who finished with just 21 yards, and it also rattled Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who had 64 passing yards at halftime.
Chicago’s only score before the half came on a penalty-aided drive that ended with a Cutler touchdown to Brandon Marshall. The 49ers led 17-7, and they pushed their advantage to 20-7 early in the third quarter.
But the 49ers continued to be tripped up by penalties and turnovers in the second half, and this time Cutler and the Bears took advantage.
The most devastating sequence came at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Kaepernick, targeting Crabtree, was intercepted by Bears rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller. A personal foul penalty on Kaepernick – for using inappropriate language – put the ball on San Francisco's 3-yard line. On the next play, Cutler connected with tight end Martellus Bennett for a touchdown that gave the Bears their first lead, 21-20.
Kaepernick called his performance “terrible” but insisted he didn't say anything wrong to his Bears antagonist, lineman Lamarr Houston.
“I didn’t say anything,” he said.
On the next drive, another Kaepernick pass, this one intended for tight end Derek Carrier, was intercepted by Fuller. Cutler again converted that turnover into a touchdown, this time to Marshall, who hauled in three of Cutler’s four touchdown passes. All three came against 49ers rookie Jimmie Ward, who matched up against Marshall when the big receiver lined up in the slot.
As he usually does, Harbaugh defended his quarterback after the game.
“I think he was seeing things good,” he said of Kaepernick. “He threw some pretty darn good balls that got intercepted. … Tip of the cap to the defense.”