SANTA CLARA -- Three things you need to know about the 49ers’ 44-33 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 16 on Sunday:
1, ROOKIES STEP UP
Rookies typically wear down late in the NFL season due to the increase in the number of games over college football. But the 49ers’ first-year players appear to be peaking late in the season.
After such players as draft picks Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, George Kittle and Trent Taylor helped put the 49ers in position to win, it was undrafted running back Matt Breida who supplied the finishing touch.
Breida took a pitch from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and flashed his speed to get around the left corner en route to a 30-yard game-clinching touchdown run with 1:24 remaining for the 10-point victory.
Kittle and Taylor added touchdown catches from Garoppolo, and Witherspoon supplied one of the 49ers’ three interceptions of Blake Bortles, who entered Sunday as the hottest quarterback in the NFL.
Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick, and Foster played a role in shutting down Leonard Fournette, the No. 4 selection in the draft. Fournette gained just 48 yards on 18 rushing attempts for a meager 2.7-yard average.
The 49ers are building a lot of momentum going into the 2018 season, and the play of the rookies is a big reason it appears to be a program on the rise.
"A lot of it is new coaches, new players," Kittle said. "We are just really learning to come together as a team. I think we are finding our rhythm now. I feel like we are just clicking on offense, which is one thing we struggled with early. Our defense has been playing well all year. We were just struggling from the beginning, now we are just rolling. We are on a heater. I think we are going to stay that way."
2. JIMMY SHOW CONTINUES
Garoppolo faced his stiffest challenge since entering the 49ers’ starting lineup. Going up against the top defense in the league, Garoppolo made more than enough plays to enable the 49ers to pull off the upset over the AFC South champions.
"I thought he played very similar in this game that he has the last few games," Shanahan said. "He made the right reads for the most part, made the right throws. I’m sure there’s a couple he’d want to have back, just like any game. It was that he’s been very consistent.”
Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith during the week described this game as a “hat and T-shirt week” – alluding to the Jaguars’ intention to celebrate the division title in the 49ers’ stadium.
While the Tennessee Titans’ loss clinched the Jags’ championship, their hopes as the top seed in the AFC playoffs were extinguished with the loss to the 49ers. And Jacksonville did not appear to be much in the mood for a celebration before returning to the East Coast.
The Jacksonville defense leads the NFL in sacks and entered the game allowing a league-low 168.9 yards passing per game. The 49ers’ offensive line generally gave Garoppolo time to throw, and he was sacked just once. Garoppolo completed 21 of 30 pass attempts for 242 yards and two touchdowns.
"I think it was a good test for us, especially as an offense," Garoppolo said. "Our team overall responded. It was an overall team win today. Offense doing our part. Defense getting us field position. Special teams. It all came together really nice today. That’s what makes a good team. We’re moving in the right direction right now. It seems week by week we just keep getting better.”
Said left tackle Joe Staley, "Jimmy is playing great football for us at the quarterback position. It is probably the most important position in team sports. He is doing a terrific job out there. He raises all shifts up there and everybody is playing really good football right now. We have a close locker room. I am really proud to be a part of it. It is pretty special here.”
Garoppolo surpassed Hall of Famer Kurt Warner’s record for passing yards in his first four starts with a new team. Garoppolo has thrown for 1,250 yards with the 49ers. Warner had 1,217 yards passing in his first four starts with St. Louis Rams in 1999.
The 49ers (5-10) will take a four-game win streak into the season finale next week at the Los Angeles Rams.
3. SHANAHAN DIALS IT UP
Coach Kyle Shanahan was regarded as one of the best offensive coordinators in the league. And those skills were on display Sunday, as he put together a masterful game plan against the top-ranked Jacksonville defense.
The 49ers went with multi-receiver formations to spread out the Jacksonville defense. Shanahan kept the Jaguars off balance with a variety of quick passes and misdirection. Shanahan found the weaknesses in the Jaguars’ defense, which resulted in players running free all over the field in the passing game.
Garoppolo missed some of his throws, but he also made good on the key downs. The 49ers converted 10 of 15 on third downs for a remarkable 67-percent conversion rate.
The 49ers scored five offensive touchdowns against a defense that allowed just 14.9 points per game. After Jacksonville clawed back into the game in the final two minutes, Shanahan’s call for a pitch to Breida on a third-down play was well-timed and well-executed, resulting in a 30-yard touchdown run to seal the victory.
"The guys made their blocks and we had a strong feeling they’d be in man coverage and playing the run and daring us to throw, which you know you need to get a first down there because I believe they still had one timeout, so you can’t run the clock out," Shanahan said.
There could more of this kind of precision execution in the future as the 49ers get more acclimated to Shanahan’s system and the talent level on the roster improves.