Everybody knew the way this game was going. But when Robbie Gould lined up for his expected game-winning field goal, there were many players on the 49ers’ sideline who predicted he would miss the kick. Receiver Torrey Smith was not one of them.
“This is the kind of year we’re having right now,” Smith said. “Please, can we have a miracle?” It may not have been a miracle, but the kick hooked wide, and the 49ers pulled out an improbable and highly emotional 26-20 victory over the Chicago Bears in overtime at Soldier Field.
Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s game:
1) Moving in right direction?
The scene outside the 49ers’ locker room was joyous. Owner Denise DeBartolo-York was there to greet coach Jim Tomsula with a hug as he came off the field. Obviously, the last thing the 49ers want to do is fire Tomsula after one season, and the victory over the Bears certainly swings the pendulum a lot further in Tomsula’s direction. It seems as if the 49ers would have to completely fall apart in their final four games for Tomsula not to get a second season as the man in charge. Certainly, the 49ers are far from a perfect team – and far from a good team, for that matter – but if ownership and management want to see continued, steady improvement, they can make the case that it happened Sunday in the form of their first road victory of the season. Again, the debate can be made whether the 49ers were lucky to win this game or not, but a win is a win.
2) Gabbert in the clutch
Aside from an 81-yard scoring drive in the second quarter, the 49ers’ offense did nothing for most of Sunday’s game with seven three-and-outs against Vic Fangio's unit. There was really no indication the 49ers had much of a chance when they took over with 3:27 remaining in regulation in need of a 64-yard touchdown drive to tie the score. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert supplied one of the plays of the year with his 44-yard scramble for a touchdown. Then, in overtime, he teamed up with Smith for the offensive play of the year – a 71-yard touchdown pass for the win. Gabbert struggled to do anything against the Bears' defense on Sunday, but his late-game performance is another reason he has put himself into position as the most-likely starting quarterback for the 2016 season.
3) Secondary improving
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler entered this game playing the best football of his 10-year career. And while Chicago is not exactly loaded with playmakers, the 49ers’ defensive backfield did a very good job from start to finish. Nickel back Jimmie Ward diagnosed a screen pass in the first quarter that he turned into a pick-six that covered 29 yards. Cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker were good in coverage. Free safety Eric Reid had one of his better games, and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt had a wow moment with his aggressive takedown of Cutler to account for the 49ers’ only sack of the game. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini seems to have gotten the unit to a spot in which they are creating the right amount of deception without creating problems for themselves by being out of position.
4) Up and down special teams
The 49ers’ special teams nearly blew it at the end of regulation when Bears return man Deonte Thompson found a huge lane where Travaris Cadet and Marcus Cromartie were blocked out of the play. But Thompson’s 74-yard kickoff return went for naught when Gould missed the field goal at the end of the regulation. Bruce Ellington had a 40-yard kickoff return to open overtime, but that was the only mark he made on the game. The 49ers’ best player through most of Sunday’s game was rookie Bradley Pinion, who averaged 48.1 yards, with a career-best of 62 yards, on nine punts.
5) Depth tested
The 49ers stuck together to win the game despite experiencing a rash of injuries. They suited up just two tight ends, and Vance McDonald sustained a concussion in the first half that made him unavailable for most of the game. As a result, fullback Bruce Miller and center Daniel Kilgore lined up at tight end when the 49ers wanted to feature their power running game. Inside linebacker Gerald Hodges got his most extensive playing time because of Michael Wilhoite’s ankle injury. Even special-teamer Nick Bellore was pressed into action when NaVorro Bowman missed seven snaps to get checked for a concussion. The 49ers also found themselves short-handed at outside linebacker when their best pass-rusher, Aaron Lynch, sustained a concussion in the second half.