The 49ers held off a late Broncos rally to secure the win, 20-14, and snap a three-game losing streak Sunday afternoon. Here are five thoughts from the victory and what it means moving forward.
It may have been nerve-wracking but the 49ers finally finished
As another potentially disastrous finish loomed, the 49ers were in danger of suffering a gut-wrenching loss, squandering a two-possession lead with second-half miscues.
After trailing, 20-0, at halftime, the Broncos had rattled off 14 straight points. With fewer than four minutes remaining, the 49ers faced third-and-3. Then Laken Tomlinson was flagged for a false start, moving San Francisco back five yards. But second-year quarterback Nick Mullens made one of the best throws of his young career, hitting Dante Pettis for a 31-yard gain to move the chains. Pettis mistakingly ran out of bounds, which prevented the clock from ticking in San Francisco’s favor, but the conversion extended the drive. Three plays later, Mullens hit Trent Taylor for six yards on another third down, which effectively sealed the game.
These clutch plays are a sign of progress, as the 49ers beat a Broncos team riding a three-game winning streak, and salvaging a poor second half with a strong finish. The 49ers entered Sunday scoring a league-worst 3.5 points per fourth quarter. They allow 8.5 points per fourth quarter.
The Broncos outscored the 49ers in the fourth quarter, 7-0, Sunday, but they made enough plays when it mattered to walk out victorious.
George Kittle’s historic day
Sunday was the signature game in Kittle’s breakout sophomore campaign. He achieved several milestones throughout his seven-catch, 210-yard, one-touchdown performance, including:
- Becoming the first 49ers tight end with a 1,000-yard single season. Kittle broke Vernon Davis’ previous franchise record of 965 yards in a single season for a tight end.
- His 210 first-half yards are the most by an NFL player since the 1991 season.
- He amassed the third-most receiving yards for any NFL player this season, falling just short of league-leader Amari Cooper, who had 217 yards Sunday.
- Kittle’s 210 yards are the eighth-most in a game in 49ers history.
- He was four yards away from tying Shannon Sharpe’s all-time single-season yardage record for a tight end.
Kittle’s dominant first half was legitimately one of the greatest in NFL history. Mullens continued to find Kittle in the pockets of the Denver defense, and he took off upfield for large chunks. Kittle had catches of 85 yards (resulting in his only touchdown Sunday), 52 yards, and 31 yards . He also forced three defensive holding penalties.
Mullens targeted Kittle just once in the second half. But in one of the 49ers’ best first halves of the season, Kittle was the star, fittingly.
The value in the rest of the 49ers’ season lies in developing the younger players. Many of their rookies last played together in the second halves of preseason games. Piling up meaningful, regular-season reps will prepare the young players for future years.
Several rookies enjoyed their most extended action of the season.
- Sixth-round pick Marcell Harris started his second career game at strong safety. Last week, he started his first NFL game and struggled, missing tackles and taking bad angles on ballcarriers. The rust was understandable, given the Florida product had not played a down of football throughout the past two seasons, dating to his final college season, as he rehabbed a torn Achilles. Harris was much improved Sunday. He laid a couple big hits on Denver’s runs. His best tackle of the day came on fourth-and-3 with nine minutes left in the game. He wrapped up Denver running back Phillip Lindsay short of the first-down marker. Harris finished with seven tackles, five solo, and two for a loss.
- Fifth-round pick D.J. Reed was arguably the best 49ers rookie Sunday. He compiled 12 total tackles, 10 solo, three for a loss, and one sack. That’s even more impressive considering he played mostly in passing situations. Starting nickel corner K’Waun Williams did not play due to injury, and Reed took advantage of the increased reps.
- Pettis, a second-round pick, scored in his third straight game.
— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) December 9, 2018
Pettis has come into his own after missing six games this season with a knee injury. In the past three games, he has 255 yards and four touchdowns. He dropped what would have been a sure first down as the 49ers tried to seal the win about midway through the fourth quarter. But Pettis made up for that drop with the late catch to extend San Francisco’s final offensive drive of the game.
- First-round pick Mike McGlinchey has arguably been the best 49ers rookie all year. He has been particularly impressive in run blocking. His toughest task of the season came Sunday, with Von Miller opposing McGlinchey, and Miller produced three tackles, one for a loss, and one sack.
- Third-round pick Fred Warner flew around the field, which is nothing new.
- Seventh-round pick Jullian Taylor and and third-round pick Tarvarius Moore, two rookies who have not played much this year, earned some snaps on defense.
The first half was San Francisco’s best 30 minutes of football this season
One of the 49ers’ recurring issues has been playing a complete game. But they have turned in several encouraging halves, and the first half of Sunday’s win was their best.
The 49ers outscored the Broncos, 20-0, in the first half. The 49ers out-gained the Broncos, 311-66, in yardage throughout the first 30 minutes. Mullens threw for 254 yards (only 44 to players not named George Kittle), compared to Case Keenum’s 33 yards.
The 49ers gained 161 yards on their first three drives, moving the ball into the Denver territory, but settled for two field goals. Kittle found the end zone on his 85-yard touchdown with fewer than 10 minutes left in the second quarter. Pettis scored with eight seconds left in the half to extend the lead to 19 before the made PAT.
Defensively, the 49ers forced the Broncos to punt on every possession in the first half. Just one of their drives yielded more than six plays. The pressure was much improved, and the secondary was not tasked with covering for abnormal periods of time.
The next step: replicating strong first halves with equally as strong second halves.
The path to the No. 1 draft pick got more interesting
The 49ers entered Sunday with the best statistical chance at the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. They and the Raiders were the only two-win teams, but the 49ers’ poor strength of schedule had given them the tiebreaker for the top pick. After San Francisco’s win Sunday, the Cardinals, also 3-10, are now tied with the 49ers in strength of schedule.
For the first time all year, both Bay Area teams won in the same week, tightening the path to the No. 1 pick. The Raiders beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-21.
Sunday went as well as it could have for the 49ers — they snapped their three-game losing streak and still have a solid chance for the No. 1 overall pick.