49ers get a more realistic look at the resilient Nick Mullens

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- More than a week after Nick Mullens made NFL observers sit up and take notice, his second go-around wasn't nearly as smooth or easy. And it didn't end in a victory.

In many ways, Monday's 27-23 loss to the New York Giants was a much better and more realistic look at what the San Francisco 49ers have in Mullens. That is a tough, resilient quarterback who is unafraid to take some chances but isn't a panacea for this lost 49ers season.

This time around, Mullens didn't set records or find himself in the esteemed company of a series of Hall of Fame quarterbacks. What he did instead was keep the 2-8 Niners in a game in which he faced some real adversity for the first time. He finished 27-of-39 for 250 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 73.7.

For the most part, Mullens responded well to those bumps in the road, but it wasn't enough.

"He was the same," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He had one early [interception], didn't change, didn't get gun-shy, played his game, and I don't think the picks affected him. He played his game."

The result was the Niners' first home loss on Monday Night Football in their past six such contests.

In starting Monday night, Mullens became the first quarterback since Kansas City's Tyler Palko in 2011 to make his first two NFL starts in prime-time games. Mullens put on a show against the Raiders but faced little resistance. The Giants proved a much feistier challenge, despite, like the Raiders, entering the game with just one win.

After an up-and-down game in which Mullens struggled on deeper throws outside the numbers and the Niners' short passing game was sniffed out before it could get going, Mullens bounced back multiple times from his mistakes and those of his teammates.

Given a chance to lead a winning drive with 53 seconds left and the ball at the Niners' 25, Mullens came up just short. His last-second heave from the Giants' 21 went out of the end zone, but it was a throw on the previous drive that left him frustrated after the game.

On third-and-6 at New York's 15 with 2:59 to go, Mullens dropped back to throw with plenty of time to get rid of it. After going through his progressions, he eventually threw to wideout Kendrick Bourne, but by the time Bourne got it, the Giants' defense had recovered and tackled him 3 yards short of a first down.

The Niners settled for a field goal rather than a potential winning touchdown or, at least, the opportunity to burn more clock before kicking the field goal.

"It was just frustrating," Mullens said. "Coach Shanahan always talks about the moments of truth. That is a moment of truth if you ever seen one, and I didn't get the job done."

Mullens threw a pair of costly interceptions, both of which weren't entirely his fault, though the first one he said he threw too late, and it led to New York's first touchdown.

On the bright side, Mullens didn't back down at the first sign of trouble. As a response to the initial interception, he led the Niners on a 75-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing possession. When he threw his second pick later on a ball that bounced off receiver Marquise Goodwin's hands, he went right back to work and led the Niners to a field goal.

"Nick's a stud," tight end George Kittle said. "He was great. He has a great voice. I love playing with him. I have nothing negative to say about Nick. He's done everything we've asked him and more. He's going to keep doing that. He's going to keep proving people wrong, and he's going to keep slinging it."

In all, it was a solid if unspectacular performance, more in line with what you'd expect from an undrafted quarterback making his second NFL start.

Mullens showed grit but also more warts than he did in Week 9. His NFL debut against the Raiders -- in which he threw for 262 yards with three touchdowns and posted the second-best passer rating by a player in his debut since 1973 -- might have left many dreaming of a finishing flourish similar to what Jimmy Garoppolo had last season. Such a finish to 2018 has been and remains a long shot for Mullens.

But that doesn't mean Mullens doesn't have more to offer, nor should he be denied the chance to show it. After the game, Shanahan said he was "sure" that the QB would start after the bye when the 49ers play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though he hadn't yet had time to digest Monday night's performance.

Likewise, Mullens was focused only on the frustration of San Francisco's fifth loss in a one-possession game this season, especially another in which the Niners turned it over twice and failed to come up with any takeaways of their own.

"Turnovers are obviously the story of the game in the NFL as well, and when you give them a touchdown, you lose by four," Mullens said. "So you realize that every single play in the game matters, and it's not OK when mistakes happen."

With just two starts to his name, Mullens has proved capable of leading the Niners, and he showed no fear in doing so. There's still no need to make sweeping generalizations about his future with the team or in the league. He did enough against the Raiders to earn another start. He did enough against the Giants to get a third, even if it wasn't enough to get a win.