LAS VEGAS — The 49ers were firing back from a second-half deficit in their eventual 37-34 overtime thriller over the Raiders, but this epic game had a key footnote: Brock Purdy hit a rough patch late in Sunday’s third quarter.
First, the rookie quarterback missed a deep go-ahead touchdown opportunity to 49ers’ tight end George Kittle, and the Raiders intercepted his underthrown pass. Then, looking at another chance to put the 49ers back in control, Purdy misfired on consecutive fourth-quarter strikes to receiver Juan Jennings and Kittle.
Three downfield shots, three errant throws. Purdy was in uncharted territory — this was, in fact, the first time the 49ers had trailed in his four games as the starting quarterback — and his initial response to that was not a steady one.
The 49ers had reached a critical juncture in their torrid season, which has now seen nine straight wins. With the playoffs looming and significant seeding implications on the line, Purdy had to show that he could course-correct on the fly. That’ll be necessary for the 49ers to keep winning as the stakes grow exponentially higher over the next month. Sustainable success in the NFL involves prevailing in the game of adjustments and counter-adjustments, and Purdy certainly had work to do on that front in the heat of Sunday’s battle.
First, 49ers’ QB coach Brian Griese delivers a recalibrating message.
“Griese did a great job on the sideline,” Purdy said after the game. “When I felt a little off-schedule with things, just getting back centered. Like, ‘Hey man, you’ve done this time and time again. In games, at practice, nothing’s changing. The situation is a little different, but just do your job.'”
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That job is a relatively simple one, but it certainly isn’t easy. Purdy must hit his receivers on time and in rhythm, especially on the crossing routes that form the lifeblood of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Those patterns set up essentially everything else in the attack’s arsenal. And it’s been a challenge for Purdy, who had been playing through an oblique injury over the past few weeks, to accumulate the practice reps necessary to seamlessly deliver these bread-and-butter plays.
But crunch time on Sunday necessitated that Purdy hit those plays, and he responded by connecting with Brandon Aiyuk five clutch times over the 49ers’ final two drives — mostly on slants with a razor-thin margin for error, with opposing linebackers ranging to shut narrow throwing windows.
“I think it started at practice this week,” Aiyuk said. “How the ball was coming out, I think (the coaches) were on him about some stuff coming out a little bit behind or a little bit late. And he came out this week and was shooting the football. And it was shown again today.”
The darts to Aiyuk came right after Purdy absorbed Griese’s re-centering message. He leaned back on his training, and the 49ers snapped back into rhythm.
“Ever since I’ve gotten healthier at practice, it’s been nice getting more on point with BA (Aiyuk) and all the receivers,” Purdy said. “And so at the end, just syncing in terms of what we’ve done at practice time and time again, it was nice to get things rolling.”
Purdy finished 22-of-35 for 284 yards, two touchdowns and that interception. He led what would have been a game-winning drive at the end of regulation had kicker Robbie Gould not missed a 41-yard attempt to win it at the end. But the 49ers prevailed anyway in overtime after Nick Bosa pressured Raiders QB Jarrett Stidham into an interception and return by Tashaun Gipson Sr. that set up a shorter, game-winning field goal try.
It was yet another resounding performance for Purdy, whose passer rating of 112.4 since his first start in Week 14 is the highest of all NFL quarterbacks.
“I thought that was great for him,” Shanahan said. “We had to come from behind, especially there at the end. He had a ton of plays today but there was a number that he missed, too. And that was the coolest part. There were some that he’d love to have back. … There were some mixed plays. To come back, keep attacking, he never got gun-shy. Made some good decisions, too. He fought it out throughout the whole game and found a way to win.”
The 49ers trailed 24-14 in the third quarter. They outscored Las Vegas 23-10 the rest of the way. This was yet another offensive explosion with Purdy at the helm — the 49ers have scored at least 35 points in three of his four starts — and it was exponentially more significant because the team’s vaunted defense struggled so mightily this time.
The Raiders racked up 500 yards of total offense against the 49ers.
“I thought it was important for us to have a game where the offense had to carry the team,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “Similar to ’19 when we played New Orleans. (The Raiders aren’t) quite the same team as New Orleans, but I think we needed that to give us that confidence going forward if we need to do that again.”
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In that 2019 season, the 49ers roared to a 48-46 comeback victory over the Saints during a game that saw their defense gouged in a similar fashion. That victory cleared their path to the NFC’s No. 1 seed. In a parallel, Sunday’s win vaulted the 49ers into the NFC’s No. 2 position (because Minnesota lost to Green Bay) and there is still a chance that Shanahan’s team can grab the coveted No. 1 spot because Philadelphia lost its second straight game.
But a key part of that equation is out of the 49ers’ control. The New York Giants, already locked into the No. 6 seed with no opportunity to move higher, would have to beat the Eagles next week for the No. 1 seed to come to fruition. The 49ers are striving to only focus on the games that they can control, and that begins with next weekend’s regular-season finale against Arizona and will continue with the playoffs.
And in that context, the ability to continuously deliver robust offensive performances is of massive importance. The 49ers, even though they own the NFL’s top-ranked defense, have already seen that unit stumble in three games — against Atlanta, Kansas City and in this one against the Raiders. Successful complementary football demands that the offense pick up the slack in such situations, and Purdy’s unit accomplished that again despite its own struggles in Las Vegas.
Versatile running back Christian McCaffrey was again a centerpiece, amassing 193 all-purpose yards on 25 touches. The 49ers funneled the offense through McCaffrey, especially as the Raiders dialed up about a dozen aggressive blitzes.
“They were bringing the heat,” Juszczyk said.
The 49ers’ screen-pass game, tethered to McCaffrey and emerging offensive weapon Ray-Ray McCloud III, burned the Raiders’ aggressiveness.
So did the connection between Purdy and Kittle, who snatched an off-schedule touchdown from the quarterback in the second quarter. The play was intended for Aiyuk, but Purdy had to improvise midstream when the Raiders came out in a surprising defensive look.
“We ran that play a couple times Friday for our red-zone stuff, and I wasn’t even close (to being the primary read),” Kittle said. “But we came out and it was not the look we went up against in practice. Kudos to Brock for keeping his eyes up and finding me at the back of the end zone. It was awesome.”
Despite that change of plans, Aiyuk did not see a shortage of action. He hauled in nine passes for 101 yards, including the 49ers’ opening touchdown and a physical catch on an errant Purdy pass — triggered by a big hit on the quarterback — near the end of regulation.
“He went full beast mode on that drive,” McCaffrey said of Aiyuk.
The 49ers certainly needed that huge performance from their wideout, who is up to 956 receiving yards on the regular season — just 44 away from the coveted 1,000-yard mark entering next weekend’s finale. And they also needed every drop of production from McCaffrey, whose 121-yard rushing effort ensured that Shanahan’s offense would be balanced enough to move the ball at will down the stretch.
But they also undoubtedly needed Purdy, who impressed them even more than before with yet another sturdy performance — all in the face of his most pronounced struggles so far.
“He’s a super calm dude,” Aiyuk said. “The moment is never too big for him. … He’s out there leading two-minute drives signaling, out wide signaling play calls. Today just really showed us that this dude is on a different level and he can play for sure.”
(Top photo of Brock Purdy and Jordan Mason: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)