Facing a third-and-nine with two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Jimmy Garoppolo shifted up in the pocket as the Arizona Cardinals defensive line closed in.
Firing a dart to tight end Ross Dwelly, Garoppolo converted the 11th third down of the night for San Francisco, keeping the ball out of the hands of Kyler Murray and the Cardinals offense, who were just three points away from tying the game.
The throw closed out a career night for Garoppolo, who threw four touchdowns as the 49ers edged Arizona, 28-25, at University of Phoenix Stadium Thursday night. Two years to the date that the then-0-8 49ers traded a second-round pick for Garoppolo, San Francisco is now 8-0 for the first time since 1990.
“He made a lot of plays in rhythm and a lot of off-schedule plays,” San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I thought Jimmy played a hell of a game and probably his best game yet.”
In their second divisional matchup of the season, the 49ers trailed 7-0 just two-and-a-half minutes into the first quarter, after the Cardinals orchestrated a six-play, 71-yard scoring march on their first drive of the night.
San Francisco’s defense, which had given up just 23 points in its last four games combined, had appeared to stop Arizona on its first third down of the night near midfield, but a horse-collar penalty against defensive end Dee Ford gave the Cardinals new life, and newly-acquired running back Kenyan Drake capitalized with a four-yard touchdown.
Down by seven in the first quarter for the second time all season, Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle took a Chandler Jones helmet to his left knee on a first-down Tevin Coleman run up the gut, and fell to the ground writhing in pain.
After limping off the field and being examined by San Francisco’s medical staff, though, Kittle was quickly back on the sideline stretching and checking the range of motion of the compromised joint. He smiled at the camera.
“I’m great, are you kidding me,” Kittle said after the game, “It’s football. Stuff happens. You either decide to come back out or you don’t. I tried to give my team everything that I could.”
On the 49ers’ third drive of the night, Kittle was back in. He took off on third down at the Arizona 30-yard line, dropped Cardinals safety Budda Baker on a double move, and as Baker recovered to meet Kittle at the 10-yard line, Kittle dispensed a brutal stiff arm that sent Baker onto his back side and stumbled into the end zone.
“[Baker] made a few good plays tonight,” Kittle said. “I just had to remind him that I was going to be there all night.”
With Kittle’s spark, San Francisco proceeded to score two more touchdowns in the first half.
The first came after Garoppolo connected with Emmanuel Sanders three times for 64 yards, setting up a seven-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne to put San Francisco up 14-7.
On the 49ers’ next series, Garoppolo stood strong in the pocket again, completing six of his nine passes on a 13-play drive, the last coming as Garoppolo found Sanders on the right side of the end zone.
San Francisco was set up on the one-yard line the play before, after Kittle picked up seven yards on a third down toss. The catch put San Francisco in a fourth-and-one situation, ending in the Garoppolo-to-Sanders score.
Garoppolo was masterful on the evening, finishing with 319 yards and a career-high four touchdowns, completing 75% of his passes (28-for-37) and finishing with a passer rating of 139.6 — another career high for the 27-year-old.
“To play that well and not turn the ball over means he had a very good night,” Shanahan said. “He was on tonight throwing, getting to the right spots.”
The 49ers defense tightened up, forcing Arizona into a sequence of screen passes and hot routes in order to avoid the pass rush, which recorded seven sacks against the Carolina Panthers a week ago.
By halftime, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft — had amassed just 15 yards through the air.
Coming out of the break, however, the Cardinals began to close the gap as San Francisco’s offense began to slow down.
Forced to punt after a short, six-play drive, San Francisco gave the ball back to Murray, who drove 83 yards down field, ending the second-longest drive of the night with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Keesean Johnson.
Although San Francisco answered three minutes later with a 21-yard Garoppolo touchdown lob to wide receiver Dante Pettis, the Cardinals weren’t done making the game interesting.
After a 36-yard field goal six minutes into the fourth quarter, Arizona had the ball back with 5:28 to play. Two plays later, Murray hit his biggest play of the game — an 88-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andy Isabella.
Following a two-point conversion in which Drake — who finished the night with 110 yards on 15 carries — scampered into the end zone untouched, Garoppolo had the ball back in his hands with 4:53 left in the game.
San Francisco wound the clock to the two-minute warning as they faced their 17th third down of the night. Garppolo found Dwelley, who had replaced Kittle in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think it was anything crazy. It was just good execution across the board,” Garoppolo said. “I think we lock in on that … It’s a big emphasis for us — third down, red zone and stuff like that.”
The conversion allowed San Francisco to finish the game in victory formation, kneeling to run the clock out.
“I’m glad we pulled that one off so we can enjoy a few days off.” Shanahan said. “You’re only as good as your last game. 7-1 wouldn’t have felt nearly as good as 8-0 does.”
“I think we have room for improvement,” Garoppolo said. “But I like where we’re at.”