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With seven minutes and 13 seconds left to play Sunday, Nick Bosa was on his way to a Super Bowl ring and an MVP award.
About six minutes and 21 unanswered Chiefs points later, Bosa broke down in tears on the sideline.
The line between triumph and tragedy is razor thin. If the brash, demonstrative 22-year-old rookie sensation didn’t know that at the start of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, he surely knows it now that his sideline sobbing has gone viral and the 49ers face an offseason of second-guessing and disappointment.
Bosa may be little more than a meme and a coulda-woulda-shoulda-been MVP of Super Bowl LIV right now, but he’ll lead the 49ers on a lot of Super Bowl runs over the next decade. Even if he has to carry his coach and quarterback on his back to do it.
He almost single-handedly shut down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs passing game for three-and-a-half quarters. He beat Pro Bowl offensive lineman Eric Fisher on nearly every snap. He chased Mahomes from the pocket over and over again. Andy Reid and coordinator Eric Bieniemy were forced to scale back their offensive ambitions—their big-play offense reduced to short dumpoffs, scrambles and ineffectual screen passes—in response to him.
Bosa so terrorized the Chiefs that they were reduced to handing off on 2nd-and-long to slow the 49ers pass rush and avoid 3rd-and-long situations that might bring even more pressure. Mahomes, clearly rattled after some brutal early hits, sprayed uncharacteristically off-target passes, two of them landing in the hands of Bosa’s teammates.
Officially, Bosa recorded just one strip-sack, one deflected pass and five total tackles. Unofficially, he was the primary reason the 49ers led by 10 points and the Chiefs faced that hopeless-looking 3rd-and-15 situation with 7:13 remaining.
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If only Kyle Shanahan hadn’t settled for field goals on a pair of 4th-and-short situations. If only he hadn’t turned into a 1960s high school coach at the end of the first half, opting to run down the clock in the final minute-plus instead of trying to score. If only defensive tackle DeForest Buckner had drilled Mahomes a split second before that 3rd-and-15 bomb to Tyreek Hill, one of the few times Fisher was able to steer Bosa away from his quarterback. If only Jimmy Garoppolo connected with a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders while the receiver was gliding toward the end zone during a failed comeback effort instead of overthrowing him by a few yards.
If only the 49ers offense didn’t settle for 20 points, or the rest of the defense didn’t begin to sag and wilt after that bomb to Hill, it would have been Bosa, not Mahomes, preparing for a parade, the talk-show rounds and a visit to the White House he would clearly relish (but did not talk to Bleacher Report about. That’s, um, fake news.)
Instead, Bosa is Crying Jordan 2.0.
Roasting Bosa for breaking down on the sideline is the laziest brand of internet wannabe tough guy-ism. Yes, Bosa trash-talks and lays the WWE theatrics on a little thick, and his politics are unpopular with a large segment of the population (and very popular with another), making him an inviting butt for a joke. But athletes like Bosa perform best when their emotions are cranked up to maximum volume, and Bosa crashed from the highest high to the lowest low in about 45 minutes. Also, real tough guys cry.
Bosa couldn’t drag the 49ers to a championship once his coach dug his heels in the dirt. But he proved he can be a transformative defender who makes good defenses great and MVP-caliber quarterbacks look inept to ordinary in big games.
He had already demonstrated his ability to take over in the playoffs with his two-sack performance against the Vikings in the divisional round. He added another sack of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game. At a point in the year when most rookies would be hitting the wall, Bosa delivered one of the most dominant playoff pass-rushing performances in NFL history, becoming one of 29 players ever to record four or more sacks in one postseason. And as discussed earlier, the sacks only scratch the surface of his performance.
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Bosa has the potential to have a J.J. Watt-level impact. Their styles may be a little different, but the results are the same, as are the crowd-pleasing theatrics and the infectious energy both players bring to their teammates—an energy it was easy to feel when speaking to Bosa’s teammates before the Super Bowl. Buckner is an outstanding defender, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford very good ones, but Bosa is the guy who drops the cinder block on the accelerator for the 49ers defense.
Think for a moment of what Watt means to the Texans. They’ve won the AFC South six of nine years since he arrived in 2011, even though they often field one of the league’s thinnest rosters. Watt, Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins propelled the otherwise-unimpressive Texans into the playoffs again this season, and they might even have reached the Super Bowl if their coach didn’t keep swallowing his whistle after they took the lead against the Chiefs.
Watt’s Texans have a habit of getting stymied early in the playoffs. But Bosa’s surrounding cast is better; his organization is stronger. Bosa and the defense will make the 49ers much more than just playoff jobbers over the next few years. The rest is up to their game-manager quarterback and Super Bowl-mismanager head coach.
Later in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, after Hill’s catch changed the complexion of the game but before the Chiefs took the lead, Bosa schooled Fisher yet again on 2nd-and-5 and drew a bead on Mahomes. But the quarterback stepped up so Bosa could only brush him with his fingertips, delivering a strike to Travis Kelce to extend what became a game-winning drive. That’s the razor-thin margin for you. If Bosa did just a tiny bit more in Super Bowl LIV, even conservative play-calling and missed offensive opportunities might not have kept the 49ers from victory.
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49ers fans, like Bosa, may still be drying tears today and wondering what might have been. Super Bowl LIV left us with a few questions about what Garoppolo and Shanahan are capable of moving forward.
But Bosa is unquestionable. And next time he’s minutes away from glory, you can bet he’ll find a way to make one more big play when he must.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.