San Francisco 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (23) holding intercepted ball that he picked off in the second half against the Arizona Cardinals on Sat Dec 26, 2020 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale (AP News photo)
By Joe Hawkes
GLENDALE, Ariz — With the 49ers already officially eliminated from the playoffs after losing to the Dallas Cowboys 41-33 in Week 15, didn’t mean that San Francisco had nothing to play for in 2020.
Like preventing their bitter rivals in the Arizona Cardinals from making it to the postseason. If the Cardinals don’t make the playoffs after entering Week 16 holding down the final spot in the NFC playoffs, they can thank the 49ers.
The 49ers pulled off the 20-12 upset over their State Farm Stadium tenants on Saturday afternoon.
San Francisco (6-9) avoided being swept by Arizona this season. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers 24-20 in Week 1. Arizona (8-7) came into this season having swept the season series from San Francisco in five out of the last six seasons.
In his first start since Week 8 of the 2018 season, C.J. Beathard played with a steady hand in engineering the 49ers’ run-first offense which made his job that much easier. Beathard completed 13 of 22 passes for 182 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Beathard threw touchdown passes to running back Jeff Wilson and Kyle Juszczyk giving the 49ers a 14-6 lead late in the third quarter.
Entering Week 16, Beathard was 1-9 as a starting quarterback for San Francisco. He was pressed into action after injuries to Jimmy Garappolo and Nick Mullens.
Beathard was also sacked three times.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Juszczyk hauled in his second score of the game (Beathard’s third TD of the game) from nine yards out that gave the 49ers a 20-12 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
But it was Wilson that shouldered most of the offensive burden for the 49ers against the Cardinals. With Raheem Mostert placed on injured reserve with a high-ankle sprain on Friday, Wilson rushed for a career-high 183 yards on 22 carries in his second start.
A day after most of the world opened presents on Christmas, the 49ers unwrapped tight end George Kittle and immediately felt his impact in the starting lineup.
The 49ers’ best and freshest player, Kittle looked healthy in his first game since Week 8 was on a pitch-count. He spent most of the time on the sideline as he rotated back and forth with Jordan Reed and Ross Dwelley. Kittle was targeted just once in the first half, catching a 24-yard pass with 6:22 left in the first quarter. He played 13 of the 49ers’ 26 snaps in the first half.
Kittle caught four passes for a team-high 92 yards. He caught all but one pass that was thrown his way.
San Francisco’s defense deserves a ton of credit for the 49ers’ win today.
Despite playing without three defensive lineman, including Javon Kinlaw, cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Jimmie Ward, the 49ers didn’t play like they were short-handed.
The 49ers were able to hold their own against Pro Bowl quarterback Kyler Murray.
Murray completed 31 of 50 passes for 247 yards, but was sacked three times and threw an interception. He also rushed for a team-high 75 yards on eight carries.
Arizona scored its first and only touchdown early in the fourth quarter when Kenyan Drake jumped on top of a pile and stretched his arm just far enough for a 1-yard touchdown. Murray couldn’t connect with DeAndre Hopkins on the 2-point conversion and the 49ers still led 14-12.
San Francisco’s defense leaned on linebackers Fred Warner (14 tackles) and Dre Greenlaw (7 tackles), while the defensive backfield was a major factor as cornerbacks Jason Verrett (7 tackles), Ahkello Witherspoon (7 tackles), K’Waun Williams (6 tackles) and safety Tarvarius Moore (11 tackles) limited Arizona receivers in yards-after-the-catch.
The 49ers held Hopkins in check, limiting the dynamic wide receiver to a team-high eight catches for 48 yards. A far cry from Week 1 where he caught a career-high 14 catches for 151 yards against the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.
Verrett who was primarily guarding Hopkins throughout the day made the biggest play of the first half, breaking up a well-thrown pass from Murray in the end zone that prevented a potential touchdown. The play forced Arizona to kick a field goal that gave San Francisco a 7-6 lead at halftime.
San Francisco’s biggest plays came on Arizona’s final two drives of the game, including the aforementioned Witherspoon’s interception of Murray’s pass in the end zone.
The 49ers wouldn’t have had to sweat out the game if kicker Robbie Gould didn’t miss two field goals and an extra point.
Gould who made his 400th career field in Week 15, missed field goals from 37 and 41 yards. He missed an extra point after Juszczyk’s second touchdown that kept the score at 20-12.
San Francisco plays its final “home” game against the Seattle Seahawks at State Farm Stadium, while Arizona heads to Los Angeles to take on the Rams in the season finale.