Of the two teams suited up to play Christmas Eve at Levi’s Stadium, one entered primed to make a playoff run and the other a team ready to put another lackluster season in the rear view mirror.
To the casual fan, though, they would have been hard-pressed to tell the two apart based upon the way each played.
Giving their best impersonation of a playoff contender, the San Francisco 49ers (5-10) put together one of their most impressive performances of the season, taking out the AFC South-champion Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5), 44-33, to close their 2017 home schedule.
Trying not to make waves within the league, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan put his team’s fourth-consecutive win in perspective:
“Today, we looked like the better team. Today, I felt like we played at a high level versus a very good team. … I think we’ve gotten better each week.”
Coming out of the gates strong, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was once again on fire to start the first half.
In his fourth start as the 49er starting signal caller, Garoppolo began the game with a 10-play, 79-yard drive capped with a one-yard QB keeper to take an early 7-0 lead over a Jacksonville defense ranked No. 2 in the league, according to ESPN.com.
After forcing a Jacksonville punt on its first drive the 49ers constructed another impressive 9-play, 59-yard drive on their next possession, jumping in the driver’s seat early with a 10-0 lead.
As the offense was humming, the defense followed suit exposing Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles with a potent pass rush.
Hit early and often, Bortles was forced to throw into tight windows resulting in a near-fumble after a DeForest Buckner hit and eventually an early interception by Dontae Johnson, returned 50 yards to give the 49ers a 16-0 lead setting up the extra point attempt.
Blocking the point after, Jacksonville’s Aaron Colvin was able to return the kick for two points the other way to make it a 14-point game with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter.
It was the all the momentum Bortles and the Jaguars needed to initiate the uphill battle of closing a 14-point gap.
Attacking the 49ers oft-suspect secondary, Bortles and his receiving corp were able to march 75 yards down field to score on a Leonard Fournette one-yard touchdown.
Looking to respond to nine unanswered points, Garoppolo and company got down field in a flash thanks to a 44-yard catch and run by Kyle Juszczyk, who was left untouched on a wheel route out of the backfield.
That glory would be short-lived as Garoppolo threw an interception in the back of the endzone, forced by pressure and a collision administered by defensive end Yannick Nqakoue.
With the ball back in their hands, the Jaguars would once again take aim at the inconsistent 49er secondary, leading to a game-tying touchdown just before halftime.
Said Shanahan, regarding the pre-halftime letdown:
“We faced some bad adversity coming into the locker room where it was 16-to-16 at half time and we felt like we should have been up by a lot more than that.”
Coming out of the locker room, Jacksonville continued to ride that momentum as they got the ball back to start the second half. After scoring on a 45-yard field goal, the Jaguars took their first lead of the day, 19-16. For the first time of the day, they looked to be the better team on the field.
A 49ers three-and-out on the next series would reinforce that notion, too.
Trotting back onto the field to face the suddenly hot Jacksonville offense, the 49ers defense knew that it was time to make a push to regain control of the game. And that’s exactly what they did.
Making perhaps the most athletic play of the game, San Francisco cornerback K’Waun Williams swiped a highlight reel one-handed interception of Bortles — his second of the day — placing Garoppolo and the offense at the Jaguars’ 26 yard line.
Williams said of his first NFL interception:
“I haven’t gotten (a one-handed interception) maybe since high school. … We like to feed off of everyone’s energy and get the ball back into the hands of the offense.”
Five plays and 26 yards later, the 49ers found themselves in the endzone again, this time to retake the lead, 23-19, after an eight-yard bullet to George Kittle. The rookie tight end would finish the day with 42 yards on three catches to give with the pivotal score.
With the momentum back on its side, San Francisco would not let off of the gas.
Jacksonville’s next three possessions would end in a pair of punts and another interception by rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, the first of his career.
As for the 49er offense, it would finish its next two possessions with touchdowns — one finessed from Garoppolo to Trent Taylor and the other on a Carlos Hyde six-yard run. And to top it all off, a 30-yard run by Matt Breida, who finished the afternoon as the game’s leading rusher with 74 yards, put the game away with just under 90 seconds left.
Garoppolo finished the day with 242 yards through the air, two passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdowns and one interception to earn himself a 102.4 passer rating, each higher than Jacksonville’s allowed averages, according to ESPN.com.
On the opposite side of things, the 49ers would hold Bortles to a 73.8 passer rating on 366 yards passing, two touchdowns and his first three interceptions in a month.
By the time the clocks hit triple-zeros, the 49ers would be comfortably on top having muscled the visiting Jaguars.
To the untrained eye, the 49ers looked to be the team gearing up for a postseason push when in reality, they’re just ready to get 2017 over with — and get 2018 started. Said Hyde:
“Minus our record, we’re a really good football team. … Next year we’re going to win the Super Bowl.”