Whatever most fans and onlookers were hoping for in Trey Lance’s second career start, they did not receive it on Sunday.
Lance was unreliable, and looked, predictably, like a 21-year-old rookie quarterback starting his second game of the season after playing just one full game prior to Sunday.
He threw some head-scratching balls, but with a staunch defensive performance against a now 4-12 Texans team, it was enough for San Francisco to fall forward into a 23-7 win.
As of writing this, it appears the 49ers may have to wait another week to punch their ticket to the playoffs. The Carolina Panthers currently trail the New Orleans Saints 18-10 in the fourth quarter. A Saints loss and 49ers win would have clinched a playoff spot, but that calculation will be pushed to next week, with a looming road trip to Los Angeles.
The rookie missed two potential touchdown throws in the first half, failing to even look in the direction of Kyle Juszczyk and Deebo Samuel, respectively. On the latter, Lance threw a bad interception. It looked like he made his mind up before the snap that he would throw to George Kittle, and was picked off by the corner underneath him.
There were other concerning throws, too. He had a dump pass to Juszczyk that was behind him, a ball batted by a middle linebacker over the middle of the field on a throw that came out too flat, and nearly ended the first half with an interception, which somehow turned into a Brandon Aiyuk reception — and ensuing field goal — after being tipped.
But it didn’t matter. Houston’s own ineptitude prevented them from accomplishing anything substantial, outside of drawing a handful of pass interference calls against the 49ers’ turnover-prone secondary.
And Lance, while inconsistent, had much more success in the second half.
His arm talent also showed up multiple times. And for as questionable as his decision-making was, the fact that he stretched the field made a major difference. There were two deep throws which pushed the 49ers towards a victory, and another which sealed it.
One throw, in the third quarter, came out way too late, and resulted in Lance taking a shot as he threw. But because he launched deep for Aiyuk and the throw came up short, it netted a 37-yard gain on a pass interference call.
Four plays later, Lance found Elijah Mitchell on an easy play action rollout for an untouched 8-yard touchdown pass. It gave San Francisco its first lead of the game, which they held onto fairly easily.
Lance’s second consequential deep throw came in the fourth, when, with a clean pocket, he bided his time until the corner below Deebo Samuel cleared him. Then he launched and connected with Samuel, who promptly ripped away from his defender for a 45-yard touchdown.
The last one wasn’t necessary to secure the win, but it was probably the most stunning play of the day. Lance ripped a heat-seeking missile deep to George Kittle over the middle of the field. Kittle, for his part, was nearly tackled before making a one-handed grab, allowing the 49ers to decline the clear pass interference that preceded it.
This was not an impressive performance from Lance by any stretch of the imagination. But he did make some eye-catching plays and flashed what his arm talent and athletic ability can do. Instead of the Garoppolo offense in which the 49ers almost exclusively rely on yards after catch or broken tackles for their explosives, the home run ball is always on the table with Lance.
But if we’re singling out any rookie for plaudits, it should be Elijah Mitchell, who made his return after three weeks out with a concussion and knee injury.
He was excellent, just as he has been throughout the entirety of this season, taking 21 carries for 119 yards. Not only was it his fifth 100-plus-yard rushing game of the season, but the performance broke the longstanding rushing record for a 49ers rookie.
This was an ugly win, but featured solid linebacker and defensive line play, and got Lance some key experience before a stretch which could see him starting in the playoffs. Without a Saints loss, San Francisco is still a week away from clinching a playoff spot, with Jimmy Garoppolo’s status uncertain.