SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Midway through the second quarter, while one of the most intense games of his six-year reign as 49ers coach was playing out on the Levi’s Stadium turf in front of him, coach Kyle Shanahan felt someone at his side, wanting to talk. It was head athletic trainer Dustin Little, waiting for a break in the action to brief Shanahan about starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo has a break in his foot, Little said.
“How long’s he out for?” Shanahan said.
“It’s probably six months, at least,” Little told Shanahan. “It’ll be the whole season.”
Shanahan had a vital game to win, and a one-game lead in the NFC West to protect. He couldn’t tell the team, or his staff, that for the second time this year, their starting quarterback was now gone for the year. Particularly in this game, with the fastest and most explosive team in football on the other side of the field.
So he said nothing.
Afterward, he and three Niners players told me, basically, This is the life we’ve chosen. That’s one of the ways that, after Shanahan heard the news, his team was able to function like all was well. From the moment he heard the news, the Niners, and Brock Purdy, outscored Miami 23-7.
“Football is weird,” George Kittle told me afterward. “It’s a brutal, unforgiving sport. Saw Jimmy at halftime and he told me. That’s awful for your quarterback and your three-time captain. But you know, it’s kind of, ‘Well, that sucks, but we got a game to play.’ It’s like, We love you, and we’ll always love you, but we gotta go. See you after the game.”
“It’s kinda the beautifulness and craziness of the sport, what happened today.”
What happened: This was a tragi-fantastic football game. Doesn’t sound like that, with a final of San Francisco 33, Miami 17, and a season-ending foot injury to Garoppolo, the unluckiest man in football. But the Niners led by six for 12 tense minutes in the fourth quarter, and then the floodgates opened, and it was a strange end to what for 57 minutes was a heart-pounder. It started like it’d be a Miami rout, with a 75-yard Tua Tagovailoa TD pass on the first offensive play of the game. But Tua handed the Niners 13 points, and they won by 16.
This, actually, was the best game of the season that vast swaths of the country did not see. Because this was a CBS doubleheader week and the national TV audience got a terrific Kansas City-Cincinnati game in the late window, this Fox telecast—Miami with the most explosive offense in football at San Francisco with the best defense in football—missed most of the country. It wasn’t seen on the Eastern Seaboard (Boston/New York/Philadelphia/Washington) or in New England, Tampa/St.Pete, Orlando, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest and most of the Midwest and Southwest.
So you saw the score, and you heard Garoppolo is gone (on the September heels of Trey Lance being lost for the year), and you wondered two things: Who is Brock Purdy? And is San Francisco’s season over?
He’s a kid. And the season positively is not over. I’ll tell you one play that blew me away, and blew Shanahan away too, that explains exactly why the season’s not kaput for the Niners.
I met with Purdy for a few minutes after the game. Looks like he’s 17. He’s 22, 6-1 (generously), needs a haircut, and seems oblivious to what he’s headed into. He talks like, Bring all that skepticism on. “A lot of people have said a lot of things about me like, I’m not good enough, this or that,” he said in a room off the locker room at Levi’s Stadium. “I just trust in God, and I’ll continue to do what I do—put my head down and go to work.”
Work this week means prepping for his first NFL start next Sunday. Against Tom Brady.
“Pretty cool,” he told me. “The GOAT. He’s been playing football longer than I’ve been alive.”
Quite a day.
The Bengals are at the top of the newsy food chain, beating Kansas City for the third time in 11 months. Weirdity: Patrick Mahomes is 0-3 against the Bengals since New Year’s Day and 12-3 against everyone else.
Nightmare in Nashville Dept. I hate the “if the season ended today” crappola, because, well, the season has five weeks left. But interesting that per the Week 13 standings, Tennessee would host Cincinnati in a Wild Card game. “Déjà vu all over again,” Ryan Tannehill says.
Deshaun Watson’s return was ignominious—Browns won 27-14 at Houston, but Watson didn’t account for any of the three TDs. Watson did not look like he was throwing at players in Cleveland uniforms. He looked like he was throwing at worms in the ground three feet in front of Browns receivers.
The A.J. Brown revenge game went very well for Brown, but not so well for the object of his vengeance.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 4, 2022
The MVP race is a Mahomes-Hurts tossup with five weeks to go.
Joe Burrow, slayer of great players and teams, is going to have something to say about the MVP.
Lamar Jackson has a bum knee from the scary-narrow 10-9 win over Denver, but he should return by season’s end. Problem is, two pesky road games, in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, are on the horizon.
Break out the champagne, Packers. For something, anyway. (Hint: Papa Bear is rolling over in his grave.)
Denver has scored 45 points since Halloween. Dallas scored 54 Sunday night.
Russell Wilson is in the middle of a nightmare that will not go away. Two years ago, after 13 Seattle games, he had nine wins and 36 TD passes. Now, after 13 weeks in Denver, he has three wins and eight TD passes. Every week is a new low.
Quite a non-flex, NFL: Dallas 54, Indianapolis 19.
The Giants tied a game for the first time in 25 years. A few New Yorkers actually stayed awake for it, reportedly.
Greg Knapp’s widow has one heck of a cause, and she’s not afraid to be very blunt.
The Bills, today, are to New England what the Pats were to Buffalo for two decades.
Brock Purdy, though, first. And the play that makes Shanahan sure all is not lost.
This is my 39th season covering the NFL, and one thing that I’ve never liked is making one play a metaphor for an entire game. One play rarely is. Games have 155 plays or so in them, and in this case, it was the San Francisco defense that stood out. But I’m picking a play by this neophyte quarterback to be a vital one. Maybe not the biggest of the day, but certainly the biggest for Purdy.
Let’s recap. Miami 10, San Francisco 10. Niners ball, third-and-10 at their 35-yard line, 79 seconds left in the half, the home team already knowing that they’ve lost their second starting quarterback of the year. Garoppolo got crushed by two Miami defenders four minutes into this game. For the last 56 minutes, Purdy had to earn an incredibly valuable save.
The key point was late in the first half, on that third-and-10. At the start of the play, eight Dolphins crowded the line, a clear sign that again they would pressure Purdy heavily at the snap. On the sidelines, Shanahan prayed that Purdy would recognize the blitz and call for an adjustment to tight end George Kittle’s route. He was the primary receiver on the play, but now the correct read was for an adjustment so that Kittle would cut off his post route a bit shorter. Enough to make the first down, but not enough for a huge gain. “We had to do something quicker because we knew we weren’t going to have the time,” Shanahan said.
It was about 80 minutes after the game now, and the locker room was empty. I talked to Shanahan as he sat at a locker and tried to explain why Purdy’s decision here was so significant.
“I thought this was Purdy’s play of the game,” I said.
“I did too,” Shanahan said. “Especially with what they were doing to us. They were coming after Brock and doing a good job of taking our quick throws away. This was a huge job of Brock signaling something to change the route [for Kittle].”
There is something that Shanahan and Purdy did not know. The average NFL pass this season has been thrown 2.74 seconds after the quarterback gets the ball in his hands. Purdy threw this pass in 1.72 seconds. In the NFL this season, only five times in 13 weeks had a quarterback completed a pass of at least 10 yards in 1.72 seconds or less, per NFL Next Gen stats. This was the sixth. As Purdy prepared to get hit by Jaelan Phillips, he threw a dart to Kittle, who caught and ran for a 19-yard gain. This means something because it shows Purdy recognized the defense, changed the ball, was willing to take a big hit, and he was skilled enough to complete a downfield pass with everything going on.
“Just showing the guys I’m willing to take one on the chin, willing to do what it takes to win,” Purdy said.
Five plays later, at the Miami three-yard line, Purdy threw for Christian McCaffrey in the end zone. Not a perfect throw, but a catchable one. McCaffrey dropped it. Next play, Purdy tried McCaffrey again. Touchdown.
CMC gives the @49ers the lead before the half!
— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2022
“After the touchdown,” Purdy said, “Christian came to me and said, ‘Thanks for believing in me and trusting me to make the play.’ That’s pretty wild. I mean, saying that to me. I grew up watching him. Now, I’m on his team, throwing him a touchdown pass. Wild.”
Niners 17, Dolphins 10. It was never closer than six the rest of the way. Purdy finished 25-for-37 with 210 yards, 2 touchdown passes and an interception.
Tua Tagovailoa will beat himself up for his consecutive interceptions and his in-and-out accuracy. Understandable. He missed four or five big throws to open receivers. But he did hit TD bombs to Trent Sherfield and Tyreek Hill. This team would be nowhere without him. So he gets a pass, and should, on a wobbly day against a great defense. Miami flew to Los Angeles after the game to practice for next Sunday night’s game at the Chargers—they’ll practice at UCLA—before the finale of a three-game road trip, a huge Week 15 game at Buffalo. Mid-December at Buffalo for the Dolphins. Fun!
As for the Niners, it’s Brockball now.
“I know the question is, can I step in and continue this ride of what our team has done?” he said after the game. “It’s not just a one-man show or anything like that. What Jimmy did for this team was amazing in terms of getting it rolling and getting us on a streak to win. The challenge for me is like, man, can I step up in that position and continue to feed those guys? Get them the ball. Make the right checks in the run game. Allow the defense to play great and play with them. That’s the challenge for me and that’s how I look at it and I’m excited for it.”
“What impressed me about Brock in camp,” Shanahan said, “is he was always willing to let it rip. He’s decisive. He started for years [at Iowa State] at a high level. You gotta have some balls to play quarterback in this league, and he does. We think we’ll have a chance with him.”
I think San Francisco’s Super Bowl chances got severely diminished Sunday. Hard to imagine Purdy walking into Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 18 or 25 and winning a division or championship game against the steamrolling Eagles.
But Purdy won’t be afraid. And a guy who won’t give the ball away, playing with the defense, should make it interesting down the stretch. This season’s over for the cursed Garoppolo, but certainly not for the 49ers.
The third week of my MVP rankings are here. The 50 NFL awards voters will vote for a top five for the MVP instead of just one winner starting this year. Here are my top five in the NFL race after 13 weeks, along with five more contenders:
6. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota.
7. Micah Parsons, edge, Dallas.
8. Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco.
9. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee.
10. Geno Smith, QB, Seattle.
Jalen Hurts is oh-so-close to number one. Joe Burrow invades the top five after torching rival Pittsburgh, then Tennessee, then Kansas City. Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa switch spots, with Allen moving up after leading three Bills wins in 12 days culminating with the domination of the Patriots. Off-day for Tagovailoa, but he’s allowed. Justin Jefferson goes to sixth to make room for Burrow. Debuting in the top 10: Nick Bosa, with his tour de force performance against Miami.
Agree, disagree or throw tomatoes at me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.
Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.
Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.
But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:
Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.
Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.
In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.
The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:
Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.
The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.
Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.
On 3rd & 11 with 1:59 left in regulation, Joe Burrow found Tee Higgins in a tight window for 14 yards and a first down, sealing a @Bengals win.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 5, 2022
“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”
A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:
The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.
They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.
The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.
Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.
I mean, what did you expect? Playing quarterback is not like riding a bike; you don’t just climb back on and it’s like you never left. First, you don’t replicate the speed of the game in practice because in practice a quarterback never gets hit and players aren’t playing the game-speed. Second, to go two years without getting hit by a defensive player is a big part of it. Watson will need three or four weeks – at least – to hope to be the player he was in 2019 and 2020 for Houston.
Watson played his first football game in 700 days (100 weeks) Sunday in Houston, and it would be kind to say he was rusty. He was bad. He threw multiple balls into the ground in front of receivers. He threw an interception to Texans safety Jalen Pitre that looked like Pitre was the intended receiver. He was 12 of 22 for 131, with no TDs and one pick for a poor 53.4 rating. The Browns won 27-14, but none of the three TDs was an offensive score.
Watson continued Sunday to not talk about what led to his 11-game suspension—the two dozen women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault stemming from a series of encounters with massage therapists while he was a quarterback for the Texans. On Sunday, Jenny Vrentas of The New York Times reported a text message from one of the two women who still have a pending lawsuit against Watson. “Whatever nanoscopic punishment he may have fulfilled to the satisfaction of the NFL brings neither healing nor justice to us, not protection for future women in his presence,” Vrentas quoted Lauren Baxley as saying.
“Next week I have to get better and I will be better,” Watson said after Sunday’s game. He’ll need to be. Cleveland plays at red-hot Cincinnati, and a 53.4 rating won’t be good enough.
Another flex decision. The NFL took it to the wire last week, announcing at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday that Kansas City-at-Denver was out of Sunday Night Football next week and the Dolphins and Chargers were in. Lots of drama went into that. The NFL didn’t want to leave FOX naked in the early window by moving Philly and the Giants from 1 p.m. ET to Sunday night. CBS protected the Jets-Buffalo game at 1 p.m., while the NFL, mindful of the Niners playing the following Thursday night, didn’t want to move Bucs-49ers to Sunday night. So that left NBC with Dolphins-Chargers, preferable to KC-Denver but not quite the ratings draw that Eagles-Giants would…