SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In desperate need of a spark for an offense that for most of the first three quarters had been unable to solve the Dallas Cowboys‘ defense, the San Francisco 49ers finally got exactly what they needed from a player who wasn’t really a factor in the playcall.
With 5:19 left in the third quarter of a tie playoff game on Sunday, Niners quarterback Brock Purdy rolled to his left with the intent to hit wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk on a crossing route. If that wasn’t there, the ball was supposed to go to wideout Deebo Samuel farther down the left side. And if that wasn’t available, Purdy was supposed to find fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the flat.
With none of those options open, Purdy kept his eyes downfield, set his feet and saw tight end George Kittle streaking down the middle. Kittle waved his right hand at Purdy, who spotted him and threw it just in front of his tight end.
Kittle reached out with his right hand and deflected the ball back to himself, it bounced off his face mask and he reached back out with both hands to haul it in before it hit the ground and Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs could deliver a big hit.
After the game, Purdy joked that it seemed Kittle was bobbling the ball for about 10 seconds. That was by design, according to Kittle.
“I was just trying to be dramatic,” Kittle said, laughing. “It was just for TV. I was trying to be a little dramatic, get the ratings up. That’s what we’re here for.”
The play went for 30 yards and led to the Niners’ first touchdown of the game eight plays later.
“That was unbelievable,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “That was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen. That’s a special player doing special things. And plays like that definitely boost momentum.”
It was exactly the jump-start the 49ers needed at a crucial moment, as McCaffrey would punch in a 2-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter to provide the winning points in San Francisco’s 19-12 divisional round victory over the Cowboys.
It was the Niners’ 12th consecutive win and punched their ticket to their third NFC Championship Game appearance in four seasons when they travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles next Sunday.
For Kittle, it was the biggest highlight of his best career playoff performance. He finished with five catches on as many targets for 95 yards, the most by a Niners tight end in a playoff game since Vernon Davis had 104 in Super Bowl XLVII. That total is also a playoff-career-high for Kittle, surpassing the 63 yards he had in a divisional round win against the Green Bay Packers last year.
Kittle and Purdy have had a quick chemistry since Purdy took over in Week 14. In those seven games, Kittle has 29 receptions for 425 yards and seven touchdowns.
Given that connection, it was unsurprising that his biggest play of the day came on a play in which he wasn’t even supposed to be an option.
“I’m not in the read at all,” Kittle said. “Brock is a good quarterback who keeps his eyes up when the play is falling apart and his No. 1 and his No. 2 wasn’t open, so for him to look back inside to see a white glove hand fly up and give me a shot at the ball, that’s just really good quarterback play.”
On Sunday, Purdy faced the toughest test of his young career against a Dallas defense that led the NFL in quarterback pressure percentage this season. That carried over into the matchup, as Purdy was pressured 14 times, the most of his young NFL career.
On those 14 dropbacks, Purdy was 3-of-10 for 24 yards and sacked twice. But when Purdy had time, he was 16-of-19 for 190 yards. Most important, Purdy and the offense did not turn the ball over, as San Francisco’s lone giveaway came on a fumbled punt return.
Before this season, there had never been a rookie quarterback to throw for 200-plus yards and have no interceptions in a playoff game. Purdy did it Sunday for the second time in as many weeks, and the Niners had two takeaways as they improved to 15-0 on the season when winning the turnover battle. “Playoff football, any game really in the NFL, you can’t afford to be throwing the ball up or fumbling or anything like that, obviously,” Purdy said. “But when so much is on the line and you know everyone is going to be playing their best football, every drive and every moment matters.”
Against the Eagles next week, Purdy will become the fifth rookie quarterback in NFL history to start a conference championship game, joining Shaun King, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez. Purdy, Flacco and Sanchez are the only rookie quarterbacks to win multiple playoff starts.
With each passing week, Purdy’s teammates continue to marvel at how poised the final pick of the 2022 NFL draft has been in key moments.
“You see it every day with the way he prepares and you see it in practice and games,” McCaffrey said. “He’s just been an impressive guy to be around in the huddle. So yeah, I’m not shocked anymore. It’s just who he is now.”
The tests won’t get any easier for Purdy and the Niners against a Philadelphia team that led the league in sacks and opponent yards per play. That’s why coach Kyle Shanahan and the rest of his team were quick to turn the page after Sunday’s win.
“We’ve been here before,” Shanahan said. “It’s very hard to get here. We’re not really reflecting on anything yet. We’ve got a big game this week, and that’s not our ultimate goal, either. So, in order to do that we’ve got to make sure we take care of business.”