It all had to make the 49ers sick to their stomachs.
There they were Sunday night, watching Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hand the Kansas City Chiefs a back-alley butt-whooping using the same game plan the 49ers themselves attempted to use against the Chiefs 12 months ago in their Super Bowl LIV loss at Hard Rock Stadium.
Where the 49ers couldn't execute both their offensive and defensive game plans to perfection for four quarters, the Bucs were near flawless for 60 minutes en route to a 31-9 win that gave Brady his seventh Super Bowl championship.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Bay Area and California sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
Watching everything unfold Sunday night in Tampa, Fla., was a harsh reminder of just how close the 49ers were last year, the decisions they made that could cost them a return trip and how far they now are from another shot at Super Bowl immortality.
In Super Bowl LIV, Nick Bosa and the 49ers' defense relentlessly pressured Mahomes. The Chiefs QB saw pressure on 20 of his 49 dropbacks in that game, but KC still managed seven yards per play on those.
Where the 49ers' secondary allowed Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins to separate during the critical moments, the Bucs' young secondary did not surrender the explosive plays the 49ers allowed to turn the tide in Miami Gardens, Fla. Whenever Mahomes escaped pressure and extended a play Sunday, almost every pass was contested on the back end.
There was no 44-yard strike to Hill on third-and-15 to breathe oxygen into the Chiefs' explosive defense. There was only Carlton Davis, Antoine Winfield Jr., Sean Murphy-Bunting and the rest of the Bucs' backend swaggering as pass after pass fell lifelessly to the turf.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers faced a fully healthy offensive line a season ago, while the Bucs went up against a Chiefs front that was missing four starters, including tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher. The result? The Bucs pressured Mahomes a Super Bowl-record 29 times, good for 52 percent of his dropbacks. That led to Mahomes posting a 52.3 passer rating, the lowest of his career.
Through three quarters (six drives) in Super Bowl LIV, Mahomes had a QBR of 62.9 before going 8-of-12 passing for 114 yards and two touchdowns over the next two drives to give the Chiefs a lead they didn't relinquish.
On offense, the Bucs had Brady, who was as dialed in as ever, taking advantage of every opening the Chiefs gave him. Where Jimmy Garoppolo left the door open for Mahomes and the Chiefs and couldn't bring the 49ers back in the waning minutes, Brady made sure the Bucs wouldn't spend the offseason haunted by what-ifs.
The Bucs led 14-6 with just over a minute to go in the first half when Brady drove them down the field, with help from two costly pass-interference penalties, and hit Antonio Brown for a 1-yard touchdown that extended Tampa Bay's lead to 21-6.
After the Chiefs opened the third quarter with a field goal, Brady engineered a six-play, 74-yard drive capped by a Leonard Fournette 27-yard touchdown run to make it 28-9, and that was all she wrote.
Watching Brady win his fifth Super Bowl MVP at the age of 43 was salt in the wound for a 49ers team that passed on the San Mateo native when he hit free agency last spring.
Brady had an interest in finishing his career in the Bay, but the 49ers, like so many other teams, chose to focus on the numbers adorning his birth certificate and not his play on the field. They let the fact that he was 43 scare them away from a quarterback who clearly had a lot left in the tank. Instead of noticing that Brady still had the arm strength, accuracy and IQ to remain an elite signal-caller, the 49ers focused on how his stats dropped because of the Patriots' lack of offensive talent in 2019 and didn't want to be holding the bag if this was the beginning of the end for Brady.
The 49ers could have melded Brady, the greatest quarterback in history, with the brilliant offensive mind of Kyle Shanahan, perhaps worked the same trade the Bucs did for Rob Gronkowski (although it would have taken some salary-cap gymnastics to pull off along with Kittle's contract extension) and improved the lone weakness on a team that was 10 minutes away from winning a Super Bowl.
Instead, they stuck with Garoppolo, who played in just six games in 2020 because of two separate high ankle sprains, and now find themselves still searching for a long-term answer at QB.
Now, Brady, of course, wouldn't have stopped the 49ers from suffering the mountains of injuries they did in 2020. Although, perhaps the TB12 Method could have saved a few players. (I kid.)
A year ago, the 49ers were set to run back almost the exact same team that had just gone 13-3 and won the NFC. They were expected to be one of the conference favorites. How could they not be?
Things will be different this offseason. While the 49ers still have a ton of talent, they aren't the same team that had Mahomes and the Chiefs on the ropes.
Bosa and Arik Armstead still are on the vaunted defensive line. But DeForest Buckner now calls Indianapolis home, and Dee Ford has had too many injury issues to be reliable. Richard Sherman almost certainly will play somewhere else in 2021. K'Waun Williams also could change addresses, as could Jaquiski Tartt. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh now is the New York Jets' head coach.
It's no longer as simple as "running it back."
The 49ers have foundational pieces in Bosa, Kittle, Armstead and Fred Warner. But they have a big question mark at quarterback. Garoppolo is solid when everything around him is working. But he's a trailer, not a truck. He's not built to carry a team with flaws all the way.
The 49ers had the right game plan 12 months ago. They didn't get the breaks and didn't make the plays needed to vanquish a generational talent in Mahomes.
They compounded that by saying thanks but no thanks to Brady. It was a calculated decision the 49ers almost certainly wish they had back.
If anything was made clear during Brady's first year in Tampa, it's that he was far from a product of the Patriot Way. There's no system quarterback in him. He took a forgotten NFL franchise to the Super Bowl, and that speaks to his ability both on the field and as a leader. He is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Twelve months ago, the 49ers promised to return to finish the job. Many believed they would.
So, the 49ers had to feel the sting as Brady and the Bucs bathed in confetti after doing what San Francisco couldn't against Mahomes and the Chiefs.
The Chiefs will be back. Brady is far from finished.
But the 49ers no longer know when, or if, they'll ever have the chance again.