Jimmy to Kittle, over the middle: A winning combination for 49ers

Niners pull out 26-23 overtime thriller against Bengals

Jimmy to Kittle. Over the middle.

That was the winning combination for the Niners in Cincinnati Sunday, where quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hooked up with tight end George Kittle 13 times for a whopping 151 yards through the air, much of it earned in the hard-hitting, headhunting area between the hash marks.

In doing so, the Niners pulled out a thrilling 26-23 overtime victory over the Bengals, improving to 7-6 on the campaign and maintaining their tenuous hold on a wild card, postseason berth. With a so-so Atlanta Falcons team coming in to play at Levi’s Stadium Sunday, San Francisco holds its fate in its hands going into Week 15.

“Kittle was huge. Made some real big plays in that game,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He gives us a ton. George, you know his personality and everything. He’s as explosive a tight end as there is.”

That’s an understatement. Kittle is a football prodigy who can carry this team on his back.

Perhaps Brandon Aiyuk, who caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime, said it best: “That dude. That’s a different dude. … A real special dude.”

Amen.

So, with that said, what are we to make out of this season’s vintage of Niners? The way I see it: The 49ers are a mediocre football team, but they are entertaining.

For the second week in a row, the team kept The Faithful on the edge of their couches as the boys did battle on foreign turf. Both games went down to the final seconds. There was heartbreak in Seattle. Followed by triumph in Cincinnati.

In either case, quarterback Garoppolo played his team into a position to win. He blew it in Seattle, stalling at the four-yard line with victory in sight. In Cincinnati, it was the complete opposite. Garoppolo went 6-of-6 in the game-winning drive, turning to his favorite target to keep the drive alive. Everyone in Paul Brown Stadium knew it was going to No. 85, but they couldn’t stop the Kittle connection. (Garoppolo finished 27 of 41 for 296 yards, 2 TDs and no picks against the Bungles.)

There’s been something special going on between Kittle and Garoppolo over the last six games. Much like the Super Bowl season of 2019, the duo is carrying the squad. Look at these numbers: Kittle has 38 receptions for 530 yards and six touchdowns over that stretch. That’s pretty super. But it’s a bit of a stretch to think Super Bowl.

The season has been a roller coaster for Niners fans. Early on, there was hope the team could mount a meaningful playoff run and even compete for a championship. Then there was a dry spell, spurring doubt they’d even make the postseason. Now, it looks like they’ll get there but it’s anyone’s guess between a one-and-out and a deep run.

Perhaps the Niners are truly representative of this season’s NFL, where no team has emerged as a dominant force. Instead, we’ve had wild twists and turns in the plot. The Rams looked unbeatable a few weeks ago. Same with the Bengals. The Niners have defeated both in recent weeks.

It will be interesting to see how this play ends. But the first two acts have been full of drama, setbacks and triumph.

One thing seems certain: This looks to be the last picture show for Garoppolo. Since coming over from the Patriots in a 2017 trade, Jimmy G has been a winner. Took the team to a Super Bowl. Came up short. But after this season, the team would have to pay big money to keep him and salary cap concerns will preclude that.

Instead, we have one more dance with Garoppolo, who is showing signs of brilliance, mixed with toughness and the occasional mental lapse. He’s a talented game manager who plays extremely well when not asked to do too much.

Like I’ve been saying all season, if the Niners can get their injury list right, Jimmy G might have the personnel to put another memorable run together. On Sunday, the versatile Deebo Samuel returned to help the offense. Fred Warner was there to quarterback the defense. Rookie running back sensation Elijah Mitchell will return soon as well.

Here’s hoping Jimmy G gets a full complement of weapons to support his primary target, Kittle. Whatever you want to say about the occasional interception, or his lack of field vision and mobility, Garoppolo has been an absolute soldier and a gentleman in his time with the Niners. He handled the Trey Lance controversy early this season with class. You knew he was upset, but he didn’t let it show.

That’s a professional athlete. A first-string quarterback. And a top-shelf individual. Just listen to his post-game remarks from Cincinnati.

“It was a helluva game today. It was really impressive,” he said, as understated as could be. “It was one of those games where you just had to be a football player at the end. Go play ball.”

Can I have another amen?

With Kittle, who plays id to Jimmy’s ego, the Niners have a tremendous combination that just maybe, just might, just possibly could make a little magic in December and January.

Stay tuned to the show. The third act promises much drama.

asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

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