The 49ers’ celebrated return to Mexico brought them back to first place in the NFC West, a perch they, for now, share with the Seattle Seahawks.
Monday night’s 38-10 rout of the Arizona Cardinals in 49ers-friendly Mexico City marked their third straight win, and it gave them a 4-0 record in divisional play for the first time since 2002.
Back then, Steve Mariucci was in his final season as the 49ers’ coach, and, three years later, a rebuilding franchise bowed to the Cardinals 31-14 at Estadio Azteca. Monday night’s return saw the 49ers churn out touchdowns from Brandon Aiyuk (two), George Kittle (two) and Deebo Samuel, all while the 49ers’ defense posted a second-half shutout for a third straight game.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo matched his career-high with four touchdown passes, the fourth time he’s done that — and the third time in a win over the Cardinals. He was 20-of-20 fo 228 yards, he didn’t get sacked, and he played turnover-free for the sixth time in six wins since reclaiming his job from an injured Trey Lance, who watched Monday from the sideline.
Running backs Christian McCaffrey (104 yards from scrimmage) and Elijah Mitchell (59 rushing yards) proved a complementary tandem behind the offense’s best blocking all season.
The 49ers’ defense posted a second-half shutout for the third straight game, sealed by rookie Sam Womack III’s interception in the end zone with 2:07 remaining against Arizona (4-7). DeMeco Ryans’ unit hounded and repeatedly hit quarterback Colt McCoy, who started a second straight game in place of an injured Kyler Murray. Trace McSorely came on in the fourth quarter, as the 49ers also pulled Garoppolo for rookie Brock Purdy.
After last week’s high-altitude training in Colorado, followed by Sunday’s trip for this overnighter in Mexico City, the travel-weary 49ers play their next three games at Levi’s Stadium. Those Sunday matinees are against the New Orleans Saints (4-7), the Miami Dolphins (7-3) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5). Then the 49ers pay a Thursday night, Dec. 15 visit to the Seattle Seahawks (6-4) for potential NFC West supremacy.
A 17-10 halftime lead ballooned to 31-10 entering the fourth quarter, courtesy of touchdowns from Samuel (39-yard run) and Aiyuk (his second of the game and career-high sixth of the season). Samuel’s scoring run capped the opening drive after halftime and illustrated the 49ers’ blocking brilliance, as he raced behind a convoy of Aiyuk, Trent Williams, Tyler Kroft and Jake Brendel.
The Cardinals’ response? They turned it over on downs at the 49ers’ 41. After Jimmie Ward exited with a leg issue, Sam Womack stopped A.J. Green short of sticks, then Tashaun Gipson Jr. broke up a third-down pass to DeAndre Hopkins (8-of-11 targets to that point for 87 yards), then McCoy’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete below the hard deck.
When Garoppolo’s third touchdown pass found Aiyuk on a 13-yard throw, that assured the 49ers a 21-point lead for the fourth quarter, which resumed with more dominance by DeMeco Ryans’ unit. Kittle’s fourth touchdown in as many games capped the 49ers’ scoring.
Way back in the second quarter, a five-minute surge catapulted the 49ers into a 14-3 lead, with Garoppolo throwing touchdown passes to Aiyuk (7 yards) and Kittle (39 yards). In between those scores was Jimmie Ward’s fifth career interception of his nine-year career.
The Cardinals responded with a touchdown drive 4:19 before halftime. James Conner scored on a 2-yard run after the 49ers missed multiple tackles on a 47-yard catch-and-run by Greg Dortch to the 13-yard line. Robbie Gould’s 39-yard field goal sent the 49ers into halftime with a 17-10 lead, once Nick Bosa ended the half with a sack that raised his total to 10 ½ this season.
Aiyuk’s team-high fifth touchdown catch of the season put the 49ers in front 7-3, and it came on a third-and-5 strike over the middle from Garoppolo. That capped an 82-yard drive that lasted only 4:06, and it was fueled by big plays from Samuel (19-yard catch), McCaffrey (20-yard run) and a Kittle third-down conversion. In the Cardinals’ ensuing possession after the 49ers’ first touchdown, Conner’s drop led to Ward’s interception of his nine-year career.
The 49ers got shut out in the first quarer for the fourth time this season, but they took momentum into the second quarter, courtesy of another third-down catch by Kittle, a Cardinals penalty, and a 19-yard catch-and-run by Samuel.
Monday night marked a rematch of the NFL’s first regular-season international game, when the 49ers lost 31-14 to the Cardinals at Estadio Azteca. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell proclaimed “incredible progress” to the NFL’s global reach among fans, saying pregame on the NFL Network: “We have 31 million fans in the United States that are Latino, and 60 percent of them have Mexican heritage. It’s probably our fastest growing audience segment and that’s exciting. We want to share our game with the world.”