The San Francisco 49ers were eliminated from playoff contention last weekend, while the Arizona Cardinals are fighting for a spot. The two teams played like opposites on Saturday.
The 49ers, led by a stellar defense, QB C.J. Beathard, running back Jeff Wilson, Jr. and the return of tight end George Kittle, beat a Cardinals team, 20-12, that looked flat all day.
“We’re not proud of our record,” said 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan. “We’d love to be better. But that doesn’t tell the story of who these guys are, what they’ve been through all year and how they give everything on game day.”
An Emotional Day for C.J. Beathard
Quarterback C.J. Beathard, who had not started a game since October 28, 2018, outplayed Cardinals’ quarterback Kyle Murray in a game that was filled with emotion. On December 19, 2019, Beathard’s brother, Clayton, was stabbed to death outside of a bar in Nashville, Tennessee. Playing like he did and winning this game meant a lot to the 49ers current QB1.
“It means more than I can really put into words, just everything that I’ve been through the last year and it being the year anniversary of my brother passing,” Beathard said. “And it’s just one of those things that you can’t really put it into words…You can’t write a script any different. I couldn’t handpick this to go the way it did, and so I just put my faith in God. And I kind of knew, and I think that the guys just feeling the vibe in the locker room, the vibe at practice, the guys just going out there with nothing to lose, really just inspiring each other. It was really awesome this week.”
Shanahan felt it too, as he saw the way Beathard’s teammates responded to him throughout the week.
“You could feel during the week of practice,” Shanahan said. “He came in on Wednesday when he first got his reps just so ready to go. I think you could tell how hard they played for him, too. I was very impressed with C.J. and very happy for him today.”
QB, runner, blocker. Beathard finished the day 13-of-22 for 192 yards, three touchdowns, a fumble, zero interceptions and a rating of 125.4. He ran for 17 yards in the second quarter, while he also provided a key block while wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk gained 16 yards on a reverse early in the second half.
“…I just felt that this week in general, as an offense, as a defense, just the way the guys came out to practice this week, with everything that we’ve been through, it being Christmas, it was kind of a weird week practice-wise,” Beathard said. “A bunch of stuff was moving around. A lot of guys were sitting in their hotel rooms by themselves during Christmas, not with their families. It was one of those things that I just credit all these guys for the way they came out here today.
“They inspire me more than anything. Just, I mean, all of these guys, Jeff Wilson, Ahkello [Witherspoon], the way he played. I mean, I can go down the list and name all the guys, guys like Trent Williams and George Kittle playing, coming out there. And [fullback Kyle Juszczyk is right here. He wanted me to make sure I said Juice, too…[I]t was just awesome the guys that George, it’s one of those things where we’re out the playoffs. He didn’t necessarily have to come back, but the fact that he was fighting to come back and wanted to come back and really all week was like, ‘I can’t wait to be out there with you.’ And we’ve been together for nine years, so it was pretty cool.”
Kittle and Beathard were teammates at the University of Iowa.
C.J. Beathard wearing a shirt to honor his brother Clayton, who was stabbed to death a year ago. King was Clayton’s middle name. pic.twitter.com/CQ32fIjBE1
— Tracy Sandler (@49ersfangirl) December 27, 2020
Jeff Wilson, Jr., George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk
Tight end George Kittle returned after missing the past six games with a fractured bone in his right foot, to the tune of four receptions for 92 yards, and each of those four receptions came at very opportune times. For the former college teammates and close friends, it was extra special.
“He was incredible,” Kittle said. “I said earlier in the week, C.J.’s going to play inspired and he’s going to be relentless. And he did that today. He may play after play…I think CJ handled himself incredible out there and it was just really fun to play some Saturday football with my brother again. So I was just excited to be back out there and share that experience with him.”
- Running back Jeff Wilson, Jr. had 22 carries for a career-high 183 rushing yards, while he also had a touchdown reception. Wilson leads the 49ers with eight touchdowns.
- Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who was selected to his fifth Pro Bowl this week, had two touchdown receptions. Juszczyk has six total touchdowns this season, which is a career-high. He also played quarterback for one play on 3rd-and-1 and gained three yards on a QB sneak. “That was a fun play to run,” Juszczyk said. “We saw the Cowboys do it last week with Blake Bell and I was stoked when I came in for install and we had it up for myself. I knew that was something I could handle. Like I told you guys, I played some quarterback back in the day in middle school and high school.”
That 49ers Defense, Though
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 27, 2020
Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who had 151 receiving yards in Arizona’s Week One win over San Francisco, was held to eight receptions for 48 yards, in large part to the play of 49ers cornerback Jason Verrett.
Late in the game, Murray ran for 30 yards on a 4th-and-1, but two plays later, he was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who continued his solid play from last week. It’s been an up-and-down season for Witherspoon, who just several weeks ago was a healthy scratch, but who has worked hard and played well when opportunities have come his way.
“The ups and downs Ahkello has been through this year and the way he’s been playing the last two weeks, the way he played today, says a lot about the guy,” Shanahan said. “…I was hard on him at the beginning of this year…Ahkello didn’t really shy away from it. Lost his job, lost the backup job, wasn’t able to dress for some special teams issues. And what was really cool about it, once all that stuff happens, is how he reacted. He didn’t pout. I know he went into [special teams coordinator Richard Hightower one day, when into Saleh, was like, ‘Hey, I know I’m struggling, but just tell me what to focus on to get better.’ And over the second half of the season, the work he’s put in…[T]hat’s what made us all start believing again, because Ahkello’s done some real good things for us this year and he started out a tough way…And then we had a few guys get hurt, so he got his opportunity again. And because of the way he handled himself when adversity struck, that’s why he was ready for this opportunity.”
Witherspoon had seven tackles to go with the interception.
“…It hasn’t been easy,” Witherspoon said. “But I just have a belief, a deep belief, that if you continue to work, continue to grind, the favor will be returned. And I’ve been reaping the benefits these last two weeks and just continue to take that same mindset and continue to build on it.”
Coming off the first Pro Bowl selection of his career, linebacker Fred Warner showcased why he was selected. Warner had eight tackles and six assists. In the third quarter, with San Francisco up 14-6, Warner forced a fumble and recovered it. He later batted down a pass attempt on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
“…We rose to the challenge,” Warner said. “And this group is so tight knit. It’s like a true family and a true brotherhood. And I don’t know if you see that a lot in the league. And it just means the world to be able to come out, even though…we don’t really have anything to play for. We’re out of the playoffs. It’s still a division game. It’s still ball. We’re all competitors. And I even told the guys, ‘The best team for 60 minutes, it doesn’t matter what has gone on this entire season. The best team for 60 minutes is going to win the ball game.’ And I think obviously we were the better team.”