It seemed like the ideal ending for a quarterback returning to exact revenge on the team that discarded him a year earlier: Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs got the ball back with 2:12 left needing a touchdown to win.
QB Foils Former Team in Final Seconds? That wasn’t the way it worked out.
Smith’s first pass of his final drive was nearly intercepted by one 49ers cornerback, Chris Culliver. His second pass, down the middle to tight end Anthony Fasano, was intercepted by the other cornerback, Perrish Cox, sealing the 49ers’ 22-17 win Sunday.
Smith and the man who replaced him in San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick, were the main story lines entering the game. But the outcome ended up depending on which team could keep its running game rolling until the end and which played better defense.
The 49ers had the advantage in both areas. Frank Gore topped 100 rushing yards for the second straight week, the first time he has done so since midway through the 2011 season. Seventy of Gore’s 107 yards came after halftime.
San Francisco’s defense, meanwhile, was shoved around early but tightened up in the second half and produced the game’s only turnover.
The 49ers (3-2) finished with 171 rushing yards. The Chiefs (2-3), who had 207 rushing yards a week earlier against New England, finished with 90.
“We’ve got football players. That’s what we got,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Guys who can stand in front of the mirror, look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a football player.’ That’s a heck of a feeling if you’ve ever done that.”
Smith was sharp early. He led Kansas City on an 81-yard touchdown drive on its first possession and was especially efficient on third downs. He completed 7 of 8 passes on third downs in the first half with his only incompletion coming on a drop by tight end Travis Kelce.
Smith also hit speedy running back D’Anthony Thomas on a well-designed play early in the third quarter. Thomas shook off a tackle attempt by safety Antoine Bethea, then scooted down the sideline and into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown, giving the Chiefs a 17-13 lead.
The 49ers could answer only with a field goal after two Chiefs sacks halted a promising drive. Another sack on San Francisco’s next possession forced a punt. When Gore was stopped on third and 1 early in the fourth quarter, it seemed as if the Chiefs were ready to take control.
But instead of punting on fourth and 1, the 49ers called a fake. The snap went to safety Craig Dahl instead of punter Andy Lee, and Dahl ran 3 yards for the first down.
“It’s one thing where you have to have ice in your veins in those pressure situations and just execute,” Dahl said. “It’s real easy – catch the ball and run and protect it when you have it in your hands.”
The gamble paid off as Phil Dawson made a 27-yard field goal – one of five he converted – to give the 49ers the lead again, 19-17.
Special teams also were a factor on San Francisco’s next possession when Kansas City was penalized for having too many men on the field as Dawson lined up for a 54-yard attempt. The 49ers burned two minutes off the clock and forced the Chiefs to use all three of their timeouts before Dawson connected from 30 yards.
Another difference was Kaepernick. He and Smith finished with similar passing numbers – 201 yards and a touchdown for Kaepernick, 175 yards and two touchdowns for Smith. But Kaepernick ran 10 times and picked up two big first downs while Smith scrambled once for 6 yards.
Kaepernick also pushed the ball downfield, especially to receiver Brandon Lloyd, who caught two deep passes, including a 29-yard leaping grab on third and 10 in the fourth quarter.
His aggressive passing was perhaps a reminder why the 49ers went with Kaepernick over Smith, whose biggest criticism during his 49ers days was he was too cautious and too apt to go to check-downs.
That was the case on a day Smith didn’t have his favorite wide receiver, Donnie Avery, who was out with a groin injury. Avery’s replacement, former 49er A.J. Jenkins, had only one catch for 3 yards.
While Kaepernick completed three passes that gained 20 or more yards, Smith had none. In fact, Smith’s longest attempt of the day, 23 yards, was the interception at the end.