Nick Mullens knew immediately: He shouldn’t have thrown that ball.
Facing a fourth-and-4 from the Bears’ 45-yard line with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter, Mullens rolled to the right and had at least 20 yards of running room in front of him. But instead of scrambling for the easy first down, he launched a deep ball downfield for Marquise Goodwin that sailed out of bounds, effectively ending the game.
Though the 49ers played valiantly against the playoff-bound Bears, Mullens’ error capped a 14-9 defeat on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
Mullens knew it was fourth down, but in the heat of the battle, he tried to go for the home run instead of a single. He said he should have known the situation better:
“I stood there for 30 seconds, just understanding what I just did and how big a mistake it was.”
The ending dampened another stellar performance by the rookie quarterback, who finished with 241 yards passing on 22-of-38 completions and a touchdown. The defense limited Bears’ quarterback Mitchell Tribusky, who had 246 yards passing on 25-of-29 completions and a touchdown, to just two scoring drives.
On the whole, the 49ers (4-11), fresh off a two-game win streak, stood toe-to-toe with the Bears (11-4).
Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said:
“It’s said we don’t have anything to fight for, but we play for each other. It doesn’t matter what the record is, everyone just goes out there and gives it their all.”
Though Mullens entered Sunday with a 3-3 record as the 49ers starter, his three wins had come against Oakland, Denver and Seattle, all ranked in or near the bottom third of the league defensively.
Against the third-ranked Bears defense, the former practice squad quarterback did his best to stand his ground. Mullens hung in the pocket with noted pass rusher Khalil Mack bearing down on him. He made solid throws over the middle. He looked like he belonged on an NFL field.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan said:
“Going against that defense is a very big challenge. It’s as good as a pass rush as I’ve seen. He hung in there. I thought Nick, under the circumstances, played very well.”
A forced fumble by Tarvarius Moore gave Mullens a chance for a game-winning drive with under two minutes to play. But then came the errant fourth-down play.
Mullens also seemed on his way to giving the 49ers the lead midway through the fourth quarter. After a clutch completion on 3rd-and-13 to Kendrick Bourne for 22 yards set the 49ers up at the Bears’ 20 yard line, Mullens’ next throw bounced off the hands of Goodwin and into the arms of Bears’ linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Mullens called it a “stupid turnover,” but a preventable one. He said those things happen, driving the ball down the field trying to take the lead in the fourth quarter:
“Moments of truth, you want to execute, you want to go out there. It’s your time to take control of the game. One inaccurate throw and it changes the course of the game.”
The 49ers led 9-7 at halftime, but Chicago took the lead early in the third with a methodical 12-play, 90-yard drive that spanned nearly eight minutes, ending on a 2-yard touchdown scamper by Jordan Howard that gave Chicago a 14-9 lead. Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed all nine of his pass attempts in the third quarter, opening the seal on the 49ers defense.
After the 49ers’ first two drives of the game ended on three-and-outs, Mullens found a rhythm, leading three scoring drives to finish the half with the 49ers ahead 9-7. He completed 10 of his final 14 passes in the half, capped off with a successful two-minute drill for Robbie Gould to knock in his third field goal of the half as time expired.
Mullens’ confidence is growing as he gets more starts under his belt, and it’s contagious, according to tight end George Kittle:
“You’ve got to absolutely love that. When you’re a quarterback and you’re confident and you’re believing in the pass that you’re throwing, it’s a huge aspect. Nick has confidence, it makes us have confidence in ourselves too.”
San Francisco led 6-0 before Chicago took a brief lead late in the first half. Trubisky found Anthony Miller for a 4-yard touchdown. Otherwise, the 49ers defense stood tall against the Bears’ young phenom. They forced some bad throws along with a fumble on a failed backwards pass by Trubisky in the second quarter.
Cornerback Richard Sherman thought the 49ers played one of their best games defensively:
“It’s just guys playing sound. We’ve gotten to the point where guys are playing comfortable. They know their assignments, and they’re sticking to them.”
Sherman was ejected in the fourth quarter for fighting the Bears’ sideline following a late hit by the 49ers’ Marcel Harris on Trubisky. Two Bears were also ejected in the skirmish. Sherman said he was simply sticking up for Harris. The veteran’s teammates were appreciative, speaking to the bond that has developed on the team.
“Look at the things we’ve gone through. We have a great group of guys. It’s a pretty darn good football team we just played and look how we fought. There’s no moral victories. But, we know the type of people that we have in the room. That’s what matters.”
The 49ers wrap up the season with a trip to Los Angeles to play the division-leading Rams (12-3) next Sunday.
The takeaway by the 49ers in the second quarter was their first in six games. They entered Saturday without a takeaway in nine of their last 10 games. … Running back Matt Breida, wide receiver Dante Pettis and tight end Garrett Celek all left the game in the second quarter. Breida had an ankle injury, Pettis hurt his knee and Celek was evaluated for a possible concussion. Cornerback K’Waun Williams sustained a knee injury and Goodwin hurt his Achilles.