SANTA CLARA — Just when you figured they couldn’t sink any lower, the 49ers burrowed deep below the surface of Levi’s Stadium and played a game that, even by post-Harbaugh standards, was hard to comprehend.
The Niners were deeded a 14-0 lead in the first five minutes of the game and were still up 17-6 with 5½ minutes left in regulation, against a spiraling, 3-9 team that had been dismantled on Monday Night Football six days earlier and that lined up a quarterback who had never won an NFL game as a starter. Remarkably, the 49ers found a way to lose.
The New York Jets’ Bilal Powell carved a path through the San Francisco defense for a 19-yard touchdown run 6:25 into overtime Sunday, and the visitors won 23-17, extending the 49ers’ franchise-record losing streak to 12 games and ensuring they would finish no better than tied for last place in the NFC West.
Judging by the past two games, a 1-15 season is a distinct possibility.
The Niners’ offensive collapse against the Jets was remarkable. They gained 193 yards in the first quarter, 86 in the second, and just 85 thereafter in nearly 2½ quarters of football. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, as he so frequently has since taking over the starter’s role in mid-October, mirrored his offense’s decline. Kaepernick completed 7 of 7 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter; he was 8 of 19 for 38 yards after that.
After the game, coach Chip Kelly acknowledged that he became overly cautious in his tactics, while simultaneously emphasizing the 49ers’ mounting injuries.
“That’s on me as the play-caller, but I just really wasn’t confident,” Kelly said. “You lost Vance. You lost Torrey. You’ve got two new guys in there on the offensive line. I was making sure we were good with protection.”
Tight end Vance McDonald left the game with a shoulder injury. Wide receiver Torrey Smith was carted off after a scary head injury. Left tackle Joe Staley missed the game with a strained hamstring, and center Daniel Kilgore got hurt late in the first quarter. They were further blows for a team that has already lost key players like inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman and free safety Eric Reid in 2016.
The Jets could counter that they had some adversity of their own. Their best offensive lineman, center Nick Mangold, went on injured reserve with an ankle injury last week. And their top running back, Matt Forte, carried just three times before hurting his knee. They lost role players like safety Marcus Gilchrist, cornerback Buster Skrine and tight end Brandon Bostick on Sunday, too.
The Jets, unlike the 49ers, found ways to compensate.
The SF players weren’t ready to blame Kelly’s play-calling, though. Running back Carlos Hyde seemed to question the effort.
“I just think the Jets came out and played harder,” he said. “Nothing changed with us.”
The mood sagged on the 49ers’ sideline when New York’s Nick Folk tied the game on a 50-yard field goal with 38 seconds left in regulation. But the 49ers received the ball first in overtime and soon faced fourth-and-2 at the New York 37. It was a pivotal moment. Kelly could have elected to trot out Phil Dawson for a long field goal, but Dawson had already missed twice in the game. Kelly could have ordered a punt, too. He decided to go for the first down.
“I didn’t want to give the ball back to them,” Kelly said. “I thought with a yard that we had a shot the way Carlos was running. That was the one thing that was moving for us offensively was Carlos running the ball.”
Hyde finished with a career-high 193 rushing yards on 17 carries. But the Jets stuffed him on the fourth-down play, with defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Deon Simon leading the charge.
New York quarterback Bryce Petty, making his second NFL start, then connected with Robby Anderson on a 26-yard pass that seemed to freeze safety Jaquiski Tartt, and Powell followed with his game-winning run three plays later.
Even late, the 49ers looked like they were in control of this one, taking a 17-6 lead into the fourth quarter.
“For me, I was thinking we were about to stop them,” Tartt said. “The offense would get the ball and we would run out the clock.”
Instead, the Jets ground out a 15-play drive that consumed 8:23, converting a fourth-and-2 snap along the way, and scored on Powell’s 5-yard run. New York coach Todd Bowles went for the 2-pointer, and Petty ran to his right for the conversion. San Francisco outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, a staple of the winning Jim Harbaugh years, missed the tackle on both plays.
The beginning of the game must have convinced weary 49ers fans they were dreaming. Petty’s first pass of the game was a lazy toss to Quincy Enunwa at the right sideline. Cornerback Jimmie Ward jumped the route to intercept, and stumbled forward to the Jets’ 8.
The 49ers offense trotted onto the field and their first play from scrimmage was a flare to Hyde, who dove to the right flag for a 7-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The Jets went three-and-out. The Niners roared down the field, using Hyde’s 47-yard gain to set up Shane Draughn’s 4-yard touchdown run.
It was 14-0 with 10:45 still left in the first quarter. And the 49ers could have bumped their lead, too, but the normally automatic Dawson missed a 44-yard field-goal attempt wide left in the first quarter, and a 48-yarder wide right early in the second.
At the time, those misses hardly seemed to matter. Somehow, though, you knew the 49ers’ lead was fragile.
They are 1-12 now, with an owner, a general manager and a coach crowding onto the same hot seat. In the postgame locker room, players insisted that despite the ongoing disaster, no one had given up.
“Guys are still playing hard,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “We’re just trying to get the monkey off our back and get another win.”