After a disappointing Christmas, the San Francisco 49ers ended 2023 with a relatively easy win against the Commanders, 27-10.
While there was a moment it seemed Washington would be able to hang around, Brock Purdy and the 49ers offense took advantage of a turnover forced by the defense to put the game out of reach. These are the winners and losers from Sunday:
Winner: RB Elijah Mitchell
Christian McCaffrey was on pace for a heavy workload on Sunday, with 11 touches on the 49ers’ first two drives. His day would finish early in the third quarter with what appeared to be a bothersome calf.
In stepped Mitchell, who had the best game of his season.
The running back was the emphasis of San Francisco’s first drive out of halftime, with seven touches on the 12-play drive totaling 40 yards and ending the drive with his first rushing touchdown of the season.
The 49ers entered the half with a three-point lead and an eight-minute time of possession because of McCaffrey’s efficiency in the run game, averaging 4.7 yards on 13 first-half carries. Even with the MVP candidate missing the majority of the second half, the 49ers’ offense continued at the same efficiency with Mitchell, extending its time of possession advantage to where it finished at, about 16.5 minutes.
Mitchell finished the game with 80 yards on 17 carries, and the touchdown with 16 second-half carries for 78 yards. An excellent performance from Mitchell will be something he looks to build on as the 49ers approach the postseason.
Loser: The second quarter
Mitchell’s third-quarter touchdown extended the lead to 10, and the 49ers didn’t look back from there, but going into the half, Washington stayed close enough to keep things uncomfortable.
After jumping out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead, the 49ers defense finally gave in, allowing a Joey Slye 47-yard field to get Washington within seven. The offense would punt after four plays, giving the ball back to Sam Howell, who connected with Terry McLaurin for a 42-yard reception over Deommodore Lenoir, getting the Commanders inside the red zone.
Five plays later, Howell would hit McLaurin again at the front pylon - this time against Ambry Thomas - to tie the game at 10.
San Francisco’s offense seemingly responded, opening the next drive with big gainers to George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, with Deebo Samuel and McCaffrey adding another thirty yards. But things stalled out inside the Washington 10-yard-line - getting as close as a yard away from scoring - before settling for a Jake Moody 22-yard field goal to go into the half up three points.
There were vibes from the Cleveland and Minnesota games in that first half, but the second half was a solid response from a West Coast team that came out flat in the first half of an East Coast game.
Winner: CB Charvarius Ward
Washington’s offense was in a spot to get back in the game after falling behind ten on Mitchell’s touchdown, threatening to put at least three on the board with a third down at the San Francisco 11-yard-line.
Howell dropped back, looking for at least a first down to extend a drive that leaked into the fourth quarter and targeted McLaurin at the marker, but the throw was off into Ward’s arms. Instead of at least a Slye chip shot attempt to cut the lead to seven, the 49ers cornerback seized an opportunity and put the 49ers’ offense back on the field with a chance to put the game away.
Ward has made plenty of big plays this season, and on Sunday, he made another with his team-high fifth interception. Deommdore Lenoir would add a second interception later in the fourth - his third of the year.
Winner: QB Brock Purdy
Sure, the most passing yards in a season in franchise history is cool, but let’s talk about the drive after Ward’s interception.
Brock Purdy did things 49ers fans haven’t seen a quarterback do in a while. After a couple of Mitchell runs got the offense out of the shadow of the end zone, Purdy fired a laser 30 yards downfield right over the hand of Emmanuel Forbes and into the arms of Aiyuk for a gain of 38 into the red zone.
A few plays later, Purdy wowed again, this time with his feet. On a third-and-10, Purdy felt the Washington pressure, having to move off his first target, and James Smith-Williams forced him off his spot. Purdy was forced to spin around and bring the play back to the right - getting as far as 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage - before setting his feet, pointing Aiyuk to the spot, and hitting him for the score to extend the lead to three scores.
It was another all-around solid performance by the quarterback - 230 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns - and one that was a sight for sore eyes after last week’s disaster.
Winner: WR Brandon Aiyuk
When Purdy needed a play, he would look Aiyuk’s way, resulting in a big game from the receiver.
Aiyuk finished with a team-high seven receptions with 114 yards - his seventh 100-yard game of the season - with a touchdown. He started with a big 17-yard reception in the first quarter on a third down, extending the 49ers first touchdown-scoring drive to put the 49ers up seven. He followed a few plays later with a 22-yard play on another drive that resulted in three points.
His last reception of the game would be his touchdown, ending his game the best way he could. There appears to be a rotation of which pass-catcher has a big game, and Sunday was Aiyuk’s turn.
Loser: The Philadelphia Eagles
With the 49ers taking care of business in Washington, the Eagles needed to take care of things against the last-place team in the NFC West to stay alive for the converted No. 1 spot in the NFC. Fortunately for San Francisco, the Cardinals came through in Philadelphia with a 35-31 win to clinch the top seed in the conference for the 49ers.
After the 49ers lost three games in a row midseason, the No. 1 seed seemed to be the Eagles to lose but lose it they did. After San Francisco’s beat down of the Eagles in Philly back in November, Philadelphia has lost three of four to drop to the top spot in the conference and lose its grip on the top of the NFC East.