MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The San Francisco 49ers' remarkable turnaround ended up just a few minutes shy of a Super Bowl title.
After becoming only the third team to go to the Super Bowl a year after winning four or fewer games, the 49ers stumbled at the end and lost 31-20 to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night.
"It was a great season," linebacker Fred Warner said. "I can't take anything away from what we've done. To go 4-12 and then go to the Super Bowl and have a chance to win in it, it's one of those things that will hurt for a while. I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure we're better."
The Niners (15-4) were poised to join the 1999 St. Louis Rams as the only teams to win a Super Bowl a year after going 4-12. Instead, they join the 1988 Bengals as a four-win team that came so close to a championship a year later but faltered at the end.
In this same stadium 21 years ago, Joe Montana and San Francisco drove past Cincinnati for the winning score in a 20-16 victory. The collapse for this version of the Niners was on both sides of the ball. The offense fell apart in the fourth quarter and the defense got burned for big plays by Patrick Mahomes that turned a 20-10 lead into a 31-20 loss in the blink of an eye in a crushing loss.
"You could see it in the guys eyes in there. It means something to guys," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "That means you've got guys that care about what they're doing, guys who care about each other. We're a young team and we've got a very bright future. We've got to take this in stride and remember this feeling and let it fuel us in the offseason."
Garoppolo's first full season as a starter had ups and downs. He led the team to 13 wins in the regular season with four fourth-quarter comebacks and three games with at least four TD passes. But he also showed a propensity for baffling mistakes. His 18 turnovers in the regular season were the most of any player in the postseason, and then he threw two interceptions in the Super Bowl.
A big reason for optimism for the Niners was the play of their top two picks in the 2019 draft. No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa became a dominant defensive end, makinbg nine sacks in the regular season and four more in the playoffs on the way to winning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Second-round receiver Deebo Samuel showed he has the ability to be a star, excelling as a runner, receiver and blocker. He set a Super Bowl record for receivers with 53 yards rushing against the Chiefs and also had five catches for 39 yards. His physical play sets the tone for the Niners.
One of the feel-good stories of the season was the play of running back Raheem Mostert, the former special teams standout who proved he can be a No. 1 back after being cut by six teams. He led the team with 772 yards rushing in the regular season and then had 220 yards and four TDs in the NFC title game against Green Bay.
He ran for 58 yards and a TD in the Super Bowl and should get a chance for more work next season.
The Niners will have some difficult decisions when it comes to free agency this offseason with several key players set to hit the open market next month. The three biggest potential unrestricted free agents are defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who had a breakthrough season with 10 sacks; safety Jimmie Ward, who was a key part of the league's stingiest pass defense; and receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who sparked the passing game after his midseason addition.
San Francisco also can give extensions to key players like tight end George Kittle and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, which might not leave much money left for other free agents.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
The Niners won't have to improve much to contend again next season. Many of the key pieces are in place from a team that won 13 games in the regular season and made it to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco could use help at cornerback across from Richard Sherman and will need another top receiver if Sanders leaves in free agency.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL