SANTA CLARA — The 49ers’ offense wasn’t grooving Sunday like it usually does. The Cowboys’ defense was playing fast and rookie quarterback Brock Purdy started out slow to get the ball off.
Put it all together, and the longtime rivals were tied 9-9 in the middle of the third quarter. A hotly anticipated NFC divisional-round playoff game featuring two high-powered offenses was turning into a grinder.
The game called for a momentum changer. Enter, George Kittle.
On first-and-10 at the 49ers’ own 21-yard line, Purdy found Kittle over the middle — but threw it just a touch ahead of him. An outstretched Kittle got one hand on it, then hit it against his helmet and bobbled the ball on his fingertips before wrangling it in for a 30-yard catch.
“I thought, ‘OK, he’s either going to let this fall, stay in the air and get his head cleaned off, or he’s going to come down with it,’” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “He made a George Kittle type of play.”
As Kittle fell, cornerback Trevon Diggs whizzed just inches in front of his head, but the tight end held on.
Levi’s Stadium erupted as Kittle jumped up from the grass, gave the Fox broadcast cameras a wide-eyed stare and stuck out his tongue. A Kittle signature, daring viewers to smell what he and the 49ers were cooking.
MR. KITTLE STOP IT. @gkittle46
: #DALvsSF on FOX: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/WBXF8YHjXz pic.twitter.com/GDhyL4y0h7
— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2023
“Just trying to be a little dramatic,” Kittle said. “Get the ratings up, that’s what we’re here for.”
Kittle’s big catch stirred up the crowd and put the home team in position to score. But the holding call he drew later in the drive sealed the deal. He sold a bear hug from safety Donovan Wilson to referees nearby on what would have been a third-down sack of Purdy. It set up an easy 2-yard rushing touchdown for Christian McCaffrey to open the fourth quarter, the 49ers’ only touchdown of the night in their 19-12 win.
In a tight, grind-it-out game between rivals, Kittle made clear he was staying loose. When the broadcast SkyCam hovered over the 49ers’ huddle, Kittle stared directly into the lens to make a face.
hi george pic.twitter.com/UD8aSxQdbl
“When it’s like four feet above you and I could touch it, it’s pretty hard to miss it,” Kittle said.
After McCaffrey’s touchdown, he made sure to grab the touchdown ball and hand it to Hall of Fame receiver and Levi’s stadium mainstay Jerry Rice, seated behind the end zone.
“I saw Jerry and I was like, Jerry Rice needs a football,” Kittle said.
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Kittle’s big catch was somewhat improvised. With receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk covered, the rookie quarterback rolled back to his left looking for an open man. Kittle started the play blocking and switched gears as he saw Purdy rolling.
Purdy played the part of a cowboy better than his opponents. He saw a small window to get the ball to Kittle on the move and flung it.
“I thought he was going to one-hand grab it and then he started bobbling it. I was like ‘come on, man,’” Purdy said. “And yeah, it’s a tip drill but he came down with it. Glad we got George on our team.”
Added Kittle on the Fox post-game interview: “Just shoutout to Brock. I actually wasn’t even in the progression and he still found me, so that’s all that matters. I just appreciate him giving me a shot at catching the ball.”
Kittle totaled five receptions for 95 yards on Sunday, with the circus grab by far the biggest. Between that grab and the light-hearted energy he brings to the field each week, Kittle was the key to pushing the 49ers out of the mud and into the NFC Championship Game.
As he said after the game: “Football’s a lot easier when you’re having fun.”
Kittle caught CMC’s spike and then gave it to Jerry Rice
(via @nfl) pic.twitter.com/9pyIANc5Xz
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 23, 2023