SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers did what they had to do Sunday with rookie quarterback Trey Lance making his second NFL start and his first at Levi’s Stadium.
Lance threw two touchdown passes to help lead the 49ers to a crucial 23-7 victory over the Houston Texans in Week 17.
The 49ers entered the game in control of their own playoff destiny, even as starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was sidelined with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Now, coach Kyle Shanahan’s 9-7 team can assure itself an NFC wild-card berth with a victory at the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams in the regular-season finale.
The 49ers must decide whether a less-than-100-percent Garoppolo gives the team a better chance to win that game than a perfectly healthy Lance does. Lance's play Sunday might make it easy for the 49ers to stick with him.
Here are three takeaways from the 49ers’ win:
Lance comes on strong
When Lance made his first start on Oct. 10 against the Arizona Cardinals, it appeared the 49ers had more faith in him as a runner than as a passer. That's what it looked like in the first quarter Sunday, too, as Lance had four rushing attempts for 14 yards in the 49ers’ first two possessions of the game.
But Lance ended up making a lot more important plays with his powerful right arm with two second-half touchdown passes. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 249 yards and the two TDs with one interception.
Lance’s 45-yard TD pass to Deebo Samuel with 9:56 remaining in the fourth quarter gave the 49ers a little breathing room at 17-7 and brought the capacity crowd to its feet.
It wasn't always easy, though.
The 49ers’ offense was non-existent through most of the first half. But Lance led a six-play, 56-yard drive in the final 38 seconds of the first half, and Robbie Gould made a 37-yard field goal as time expired to cut the Texans’ lead to 7-3 at halftime.
Brandon Aiyuk was Lance’s top target in the passing game, as he caught four passes for 94 yards.
The 49ers also picked up 37 yards on their first TD drive of the game when Texans defensive back Terrance Mitchell was called for a 37-yard pass-interference penalty against Aiyuk.
Mitchell makes impressive return
Running back Elijah Mitchell became the 49ers’ all-time single-season rookie rushing leader despite missing six games because of injuries. He also made his mark as a pass-catcher Sunday with one of the key plays of the game.
Mitchell’s 8-yard TD reception from Lance with 5:53 remaining in the third quarter gave the 49ers a 10-7 lead.
He also rushed for 119 yards on 21 carries.
Mitchell has squeezed in a whole lot of playing time into his limited games, and Sunday was no different upon his return from missing three games with concussion and knee issues.
When the day began, Mitchell ranked between Vic Washington (1971) and Ken Willard (1965) on the 49ers’ all-time list. Mitchell needed 53 yards to rise to the top of the list.
Defense starts hot again
The 49ers’ defense continued its trend of starting games fast and not allowing the opposition to get much going in the first halves of games. This time, it carried into the second half, too.
The 49ers’ third-down defense was atrocious in their Week 16 loss to the Tennessee Titans. And they were crushed in that regard Sunday before the end of the half, when the Texans converted four third downs en route to the first touchdown of the game.
Rookie quarterback Davis Mills found Brandin Cooks against linebacker Fred Warner's coverage for a 7-0 lead. The TD pass, which came on third down, capped a 14-play, 80-yard drive after Lance threw an interception.
But other than that stretch of the game, the 49ers’ defense thoroughly was in control.
Linebacker Marcell Harris made a huge play when he intercepted a Mills pass in the third quarter. (He appeared to fumble the ball back to the Texans, but it was ruled that his forward progress had been stopped).
That takeaway led to the 49ers’ first touchdown of the game and their first lead, 10-7.
The 49ers had their issues at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Cornerback Josh Norman was called for his sixth pass-interference penalty (and his 10th penalty of the season). He was benched after the 33-yard penalty, and Dontae Johnson replaced him.
Johnson was called for a 23-yard pass-interference penalty on the next play, but the mistakes didn't hurt the 49ers, as Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt.
The 49ers’ defense made things difficult for Mills, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 163 yards. He also was sacked three times for minus-27 yards.