SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Desperately needing a spark for an offense that for most of the first three quarters had been unable to resolve 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 play call
With 5:19 remaining in the third quarter of a tied game, Niners quarterback Brock Purdy rolled to his left intending to hit wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk on a cross route. If that wasn’t there, the ball was supposed to go to wide receiver Deebo Samuel further down the left side. And if that wasn’t available, Purdy was supposed to find fullback Kyle Juszczyk at the apartment.
With neither of those options open, Purdy kept his eyes down the field, put his feet up, and saw tight end George Kittle running up the middle. Kittle waved his right hand at Purdy, who saw it and threw it right in front of his tight end.
Kittle reached out with his right hand, deflected the ball back at himself, bounced off his mask, and reached back and dragged it away before it hit the ground and Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs could land a big hit.
After the game, Purdy joked that it looked like Kittle was moving 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 bit dramatic, to get ratings. That’s what we’re here for.”
The play went 30 yards and led to the Niners’ first touchdown of the game eight plays later.
“That was awesome,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “That was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen. He’s a special player who does special things. And plays like that definitely add momentum.”
It was exactly the boost the 49ers needed at a pivotal moment when McCaffrey scored a 2-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter that would earn the game-winning points in San Francisco’s 19-12 win over the Cowboys.
It was the 12th straight win for the Niners and marked 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 highlight of the best playoff performance of his career. 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 his career playoff-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 wasn’t surprising that his biggest play of the day came on a play where he wasn’t even supposed to be an option.
“I’m not into reading 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 No. 2 weren’t open, so looking in he saw a white-gloved hand fly up and give me a shooting ball, that’s 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 rush percentage this season. That carried over into the matchup when Purdy was pressured 14 times, the most in his young NFL career.
On those 14 kickbacks, Purdy was 3-of-10 for 24 yards and sacked twice. But when Purdy had time, he was 16 of 19 for 190 yards. More importantly, Purdy and the offense didn’t turn the ball over, as San Francisco’s only draw came on a botched punt return.
Before this season, there had never been a rookie quarterback who threw for 200+ yards and had no interceptions in a playoff game. Purdy did it Sunday for the second time in as many weeks and the Niners got two points by improving to 15-0 on the season when they won the turnover battle. “Playoff football, any game really in the NFL, you can’t afford to throw the ball or fumble or something like that, obviously,” Purdy said. “But when the stakes are so high and you know everyone is going to play their best football, every momentum 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 have won multiple playoff starts.
With each passing week, Purdy’s teammates continue to marvel at how balanced the final pick of the 2022 NFL draft has been at 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 awesome guy to be in the group. So yeah, I’m not surprised anymore. He’s just who he is now.”
The tests won’t be any easier for Purdy and the Niners against a Philadelphia team that led the league in sacks and opposing yards per play. That’s why coach Kyle Shanahan and the rest of his team quickly turned the page after Sunday’s victory.
“We’ve been here before,” Shanahan said. “It’s very difficult to get here. We’re not really mulling anything over yet. We’ve got a big game this week and that’s not our ultimate goal either. So to do that, we’ve got to make sure we take care of business.”