The San Francisco 49ers rolled over the Detroit Lions for three-and-a-half quarters in their season opener Sunday.
They were leading 41-17 at the two-minute warning.
So why does it feel like they lost?
And why does it seem as if, after one game, are there more questions than answers about this team?
The 49ers didn’t lose. They might have done everything wrong and been cursed by the football gods in the final moments of the game, but they had done enough good things prior to that to win 41-33.
And while the pull of recency bias is strong and third-quarter expectations didn’t line up with fourth-quarter realities, I think the good of Sunday outweighs the bad.
The 49ers were able to execute their game plan — built around an outstanding ground attack, linebacker-dizzying passes, and a pass rush that can take over a game — to perfection Sunday, to the point where they no longer had to execute anymore to win.
That’s going to serve the team exceptionally well as they play better teams than the Lions as the season progresses.
Let’s be clear: There was no excuse for what the 49ers did at the end of the game. Niners coach Kyle Shanahan’s teams have a nasty habit of not closing games — for taking their foot off the pedal — and I’m willing to bet that there won’t be another game like Sunday, for better (they won’t implode like that again) and worse (they won’t have a massive fourth-quarter like that to squander).
Now, there’s no way to sugarcoat the loss of cornerback Jason Verrett. The Niners’ cornerback exited the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury that left him in tears as he hobbled back into the locker room. ESPN reported after the game that the Niners suspect Verrett tore his right ACL. If true, that injury would knock him out for the rest of the season and test the Niners’ super-thin depth at defensive back. That’s bad unquestionably bad news.
But do those two things override the first 50-something minutes of the game?
Do Raheem Mostert’s not-as-serious knee injury and third-round pick Trey Sermon’s status as a healthy scratch at running back undercut the tremendous NFL debut of Elijah Mitchell, who ran for 104 yards on 19 carries, becoming the 34th back in league history to go over 100 yards in his NFL debut?
I don’t think so.
Does Deebo Samuel’s baffling fumble on a game-sealing play late in the fourth quarter undermine his best game as an NFL player, where he caught nine passes for 189 yards with a 79-yard touchdown where he turned a jump ball into a spectacular catch-and-run score?
Does George Kittle not recovering an onside kick override him looking like the best tight end in the game once again?
And does Jimmy Garoppolo missing a couple of throws late and ceding a few snaps to Trey Lance (though not nearly as many as expected) mean that he didn’t have his best game since Week 17 of 2019 — or perhaps since his incredible performance against the Saints earlier that season?
Of course not.
Remember, the Niners looked like world-beaters Sunday, until they didn’t, and if those final moments of the game and Verrett’s injury felt calamitous, it’s only because the Niners provided so many highs in the game. Any low in the game had a long way to drop.
Injuries are inevitable in the NFL. The Niners weren’t the only team hurt by them Sunday. Washington lost their starting quarterback. Denver lost its top wide receiver. There were dozens more, and hundreds more are coming down the pipe as more and more games of attrition are played.
And while the Niners’ 2020 season might have been torpedoed by sidelined players, creating a level of post-traumatic stress for the fanbase, the Niners’ 2019 season featured a significant number of challenging injuries, too. That San Francisco team still found a way to go to the Super Bowl. Other players stepped up when the team needed them.
And it should be noted that Verrett’s injury comes on the same day that Deommodore Lenoir debuted as a professional and allowed only one reception on four targets on 55 coverage snaps. The Niners might have lost a reliable cornerback Sunday, but they might have found one in their fifth-round pick, too.
In the end, the Niners dropped 41 points and won the game. Context is vital, but so is perspective.
There’s a long way to go with this season. Seventeen more weeks, in fact.
So take a couple of deep breaths and remember that the final minutes of Week 1 — as strenuous as they seemed in the immediate aftermath of the game, as serious as they seem Monday morning — probably won’t be remembered in a few weeks, much less a few months.
But the win? That was well-earned and it’s permanent.