SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was a physical battle with a side of desperation.
In the end, though, Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers squeaked out a 22-17 win over the Alex Smith-led Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
The subplot to Smith’s return to his former team, meanwhile, was the trio of former Nevada players on the field leading their teams.
Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson spearhead the Chiefs (2-3) defense and had career games. Kaepernick, meanwhile, did just enough to get the 49ers over the hump and a 3-2 record to keep pace with Seattle and Arizona (3-1).
Mauga recorded a career-high 10 tackles and was limber and fluid in doing so. Johnson, meanwhile, led the Chiefs with 11 tackles, including two assists and two for a loss, and forced a fumble.
Mauga’s previous high for tackles was eight in the season opener against Tennessee. He also had seven in last week’s win over New England.
“We knew they were going to come out and pound the ball,” said Mauga, who suffered a black eye after being hit by a thumb. “It was a true test for our front seven. We gave up a couple big plays … and that kind of hurt us.”
Ravaged by injury throughout his career, which led to his release last winter from the New York Jets, has been reborn in Kansas City.
But, despite the newfound rigor and excellent play, he and his team could not get the win. The defense was solid, minus two blunders — allowing a fake punt and a crucial penalty, but the offense gained little traction and could not pick up slack.
With the loss, Kansas City falls to 2-3 and trails San Diego (4-1) and Denver (3-1) in the AFC West. The Chiefs enter their bye week and visit San Diego on Oct. 19.
“We thought we had it going into the last couple minutes,” Mauga said of the loss. “We got some things to clean up. We got a bye week, we’ll get healthy and be on the road to San Diego.”
San Francisco took a 22-17 lead on Phil Dawson’s fifth field goal of the game as he connected on a 30-yard attempt.
Smith had one final chance to lead the Chiefs down the field for the winning score. Starting on their own 20-yard line with 2 minutes remaining and no timeouts, the 49ers defense showed why its one of the best units in the NFL.
After an incompletion by Smith, the former No. 1-overall pick was intercepted by Perrish Cox to seal Kansas City’s fate.
After Kaepernick took the final kneel down, he embraced his former Nevada teammates.
“The last time we got to do that was a spring game and we couldn’t touch Kaepernick,” Mauga said of the trio of Wolf Pack players on the same field. “I just said it was great to see him and he said the same thing, and to stay healthy and ball every game.”
In the first quarter, Kansas City dominated the pace, holding the ball for more than 10 minutes, although only led 7-3. Smith engineered an 81-yard, 12-play drive capped with a 2-yard TD pass to Travis Kelce on the opening drive.
The 49ers answered with a 31-yard field goal by Dawson, who also nailed attempts of 52 and 55 yards.
Cairo Santos gave the Chiefs a 10-3 lead with a 42-yard field goal in the opening minutes of the second quarter, but Kansas City would be outscored 19-7 the rest of the way.
The Chiefs’ defense led by Mauga and Johnson, meanwhile, bent but rarely broke. Their lone big blemish was a 9-yard TD pass from Kaepernick to Stevie Johnson in the second quarter to give the 49ers a 13-10 advantage.
The drive was aided by a personal foul on Allen Bailey, who was flagged for hitting Kaepernick in the head, leaving the 49ers with a first-and-goal at the 9.
On the next play, Kaepernick hit Johnson, who was wide open after he shook cornerback Marcus Cooper.
“We did alright, but at the end of the day we still lost the game,” James-Michael Johnson said. “We have to watch the film and see what happened and go from there.”
Smith and the Chiefs offense rolled down the field on their opening possession of the second half, as Smith capped the drive with a 17-yard TD pass to De’Anthony Thomas for a 17-13 lead.
Kansas City’s final three possessions before the pick ended with a punt and 37 yards of total offense.
“It was pretty physical on both sides of the ball,” Johnson added. “I don’t think that was the issue. The issues is doing what we do.”