by Marko Ukalovic
SANTA CLARA, Calif. —With all eyes on him and his team’s playoff hopes hinging on his performance, Trey Lance did what he needed to do.
After a slow first half, the San Francisco 49er’s rookie quarterback threw for two touchdowns in the second half to help deliver a 23-7 victory over the Houston Texans in the final home game of the season for San Francisco on Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
San Francisco (9-7) remained as the sixth seed in the NFC and control their own destiny with a win and they’re in scenario for the final week of the regular season.
Lance, who made his first home start of his career and second start of the season, didn’t get off to the hot start that most people were expecting. The Niners offense was able to generate only three first downs on their first four possessions.
Houston (4-12) intercepted Lance on the first play of San Francisco’s fourth possession as he was trying to find tight end George Kittle on the left side, but the pass was underthrown as Desmond King stepped underneath and returned it to their own 20-yard line.
The Texans responded with its best drive of the game. They went 80 yards on 14 plays that was capped off with an eight-yard touchdown reception by Brandin Cooks when rookie quarterback David Mills found him open down the middle in the back of the endzone.
Both offenses played so poorly in the first half that the Texans offense was the first to reach the red zone with four minutes remaining in the first half.
Lance settled down near the end of the first half when he drove the 49ers down to the Texans’ 19-yard line after two completions to Brandon Aiyuk and one to Deebo Samuel. Robbie Gould got San Francisco on the board with a 37-yard field goal with 38 second left in the second quarter.
In the second half San Francisco’s defense dominated the trenches and shutout Houston for the final 30 minutes.
Marcell Harris intercepted Mills on the Texans’ first possession of the second half and Houston’s offense would not be able to recover the rest of the game.
San Francisco only needed four plays to cash in Harris’ pick. Lance found Elijah Mitchell out in the flat for an eight-yard touchdown reception to give the 49ers their first lead of the game at 10-7 with 5:53 left in the third quarter. The drive was aided by a 37-yard passing interference penalty on Terrance Mitchell.
“He played well enough for them to win today,” said Houston Texans head coach David Culley when asked about Lance. “He gave us a chance by giving us that one pick. The thing about him is that he’s very mobile and keeps plays alive.”
The closest Houston came to scoring in the second half was when Ka’imi Fairbairn 45-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right with 12:08 left in the fourth quarter.
The Niners took advantage of the good field position off of Fairbairn’s miss. Once again, they only needed four plays to paydirt. On a play-action pass, Lance found Samuel deep down the field on a corner post route. Samuel shook off the attempted tackle and danced his way down the sideline for his sixth receiving touchdown of the season to give San Francisco a commanding 17-7 lead with 9:56 left to play.
“That big play at the end was huge,” said San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan regarding Lance’s performance. “For the most part, he made some pretty good decisions running the ball.”
San Francisco sent Houston packing when they received the ball with under seven minutes remaining in the game. Two big plays, the first a spectacular one-hand catch by Kittle for 28 yards and then a Mitchell 37-yard rush to the Texan’s six-yard line help set up Gould’s 27-yard field goal to seal the deal.
Mitchell became the all-time rookie rushing leader for the 49ers when he rushed for 119 yards on 21 carries. Mitchell’s 878 rushing yard broke the mark set by Vic Washington (811) in 1971 with 14 appearances, despite missing the past three games due to an injury in just 10 appearances.
Lance finished 16 of 23 for 249 yards and two touchdowns and one interception with a QB rating of 116.0. Aiyuk led the Niners in receiving with four catches for 94 yards.
“Yeah, I think I got into a better rhythm,” Lance said. “Probably settled in after that two-minute drive. I think that is when I started talking to (quarterbacks coach) Rich (Scangarello) and (head coach) Kyle (Shanahan) and kind of let them know that I felt settled.”
Mills, who had a rough game, finished 21 of 32 for 163 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His QB rating was just 75.4.
Cooks led the Texans in receiving with seven catches for 66 yards and one touchdown. Running back Rex Burkhead had a quiet game with 47 yards on 16 carries.
GAME NOTES: San Francisco finished 5-for-13 on third down situations. Houston was 5-for-15.
The Niners outgained the Texans 416-222 in total yardage and had more first downs 19-15.
UP NEXT: San Francisco travel down to Los Angeles to take on the Rams in the regular season finale on Sunday 1/9 at 1:25pm.