SANTA CLARA – Here is how the 49ers (13-4) graded in Sunday’s 38-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals (4-13) in the regular-season finale to clinch the NFC playoffs’ No. 2 seed:
PASS OFFENSE: A
Brock Purdy threw a career-high three touchdown passes, including two to George Kittle for the third time in four games. A touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey on their opening possession provided a 7-6 lead and nullified the Cardinals’ second-snap touchdown (and upset chances). Purdy was 15-of-20 for 178 yards, and the Cardinals looked more prepared than others for his mobility in sacking him four times, twice by the retiring J.J. Watt. Brandon Aiyuk endured some big hits while making four catches for 59 yards, securing his first 1,000-yard season (1,015 yards). Kittle finished with a team-high 11 touchdown catches this season. Deebo Samuel had only two receptions for 20 yards but he was thrilled to knock off three weeks’ worth of rust ahead of the playoffs.
RUN OFFENSE: A
Of all their 37 carries, perhaps the most important were five from Elijah Mitchell, who was returning from a Nov. 27 knee sprain and scored two touchdowns. McCaffrey had 45 yards (10 carries) to finish with 746 yards in 11 games on the 49ers, which made him the sixth different leading rusher in as many seasons Kyle Shanahan has coached here. The offensive line looks ready for a strong playoff run behind Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Daniel Brunskill and Aaron Banks, once his knee sprain from last game is healed. When Kyle Shanahan explained where the 49ers have best improved, he pointed to the run blocking and McCaffrey’s adaptation to their style.
PASS DEFENSE: A-
Nick Bosa came away with the NFL’s sack title with 18 ½ sacks, the final one coming on a second-quarter job to drop David Blough. Bosa was one short of Aldon Smith’s franchise record from 2012, but now Bosa has the chance to do what Smith didn’t – win the Super Bowl. Tashaun Gipson Sr.’s two interceptions gave him a team-high five this season and underscored what a valuable addition he was Aug. 22. Yes, another big play cost them a touchdown, as A.J. Green outjumped Deommodore Lenoir and then juked Gipson for a 77-yard touchdown on the game’s second snap. At least that wasn’t a coverage bust like others this season. Once that was out of the way, the 49ers’ defense resumed its dominant stature that has made it the NFL’s best in total yards allowed (300.6 per game).
RUN DEFENSE: A
The 49ers finished a close second to the Tennessee Titans for the NFL’s best run defense; the 49ers allowed 1,321 yards (77.7 per game) to the Titans’ 1,307 yards (76.9 per game). When it comes to year-end finishes, Fred Warner was the 49ers’ leading tackler for the fifth time in as many seasons. Warner’s eight tackles Sunday gave him 130 in 17 starts; Dre Greenlaw finished with 127 tackles and missed two games, including Sunday’s because of a back injury. Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw started on the interior to help limit the Cardinals to 61 yards on 20 carries. T.Y. McGill celebrated his tackle for loss with an Armstead-esque belly rub. Azeez Al-Shaair battled through an ankle issue to have 10 tackles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud had no lost fumbles this regular season and looks closer and closer to breaking a big one. He averaged 10.8 yards on 33 punt returns, and 23 yards on 26 kick returns. Robbie Gould’s 23-yard field goal and five point-after kicks gave him 131 points this season, his most since 2017. Also don’t overlook his kickoff ability, as 47-of-95 this season resulted in touchbacks, with the improved coverage units helping on the returns. Mitch Wishnowsky averaged 40.2 net yards on five punts, his third-most action this season.
“It starts with the play calling,” Samuel said of Kyle Shanahan’s groove that’s seen the 49ers score at least 30 points for the seventh time in this 10-game win streak. DeMeco Ryans’ defense allowed a league-low 16.3 points per game. This was an emotional week for every team in the wake of Damar Hamlin’s heart-related collapse Monday night with the Bills. The 49ers kept their focus, kept their win streak, and kept the No. 2 seed that assures them of hosting only the third and fourth playoff games in Levi’s Stadium’s nine-year history, if they advance out of the wild-card round. Not one player was taking that as a given when asked about their Super Bowl pursuit, by the way.