A 5-0 start had San Francisco 49ers fans booking Super Bowl plans.
Three consecutive losses and five Brocky Purdy interceptions later, the 49ers are scrambling to keep pace atop the NFC playoff race.
With quarterback Joe Burrow recovered from a preseason calf injury, the Bengals are back, having improved to 4-3 following a 1-3 start. The 49ers, meanwhile, are left to retool on the heels of a three-game skid.
Back-to-back Purdy picks seal 49ers' fate
Cincinnati struck first on Sunday and took a 14-10 lead into halftime. The game remained in the balance with Cincinnati leading 17-10 late in the third quarter. The 49ers drove deep into Bengals territory to set up first-and-goal from the 8-yard line with a chance to tie the game. There, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt made a game-changing play while capitalizing on a Purdy mistake.
Purdy rolled out right and targeted Eli Mitchell down the sideline near the end zone. But Pratt was in pursuit of Purdy, and reached out to bat the ball behind the line of scrimmage. He then corralled it for an interception to end San Francisco's scoring threat.
— NFL (@NFL) October 29, 2023
The Bengals punted after four plays on their ensuing possession. But Purdy gave the ball right back with an ill-advised throw on his very next pass.
Purdy targeted Brandon Aiyuk over the middle of the field on first-and-10 from the San Francisco 20-yard line. Instead, he found Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson, who snagged an easy interception to set Cincinnati up deep in San Francisco territory.
One play later, Burrow found Ja'Marr Chase for a 17-yard touchdown, and the Bengals extended their lead to 24-10.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) October 29, 2023
Consecutive Purdy interceptions thwarted a 49ers scoring opportunity then set the Bengals up for one of their own. It proved too much for the 49ers to overcome.
The turnovers arrive a day after Purdy was cleared from concussion protocol and raise questions about whether he should have been playing in the first place. They also leave the 49ers looking for answers as they head into their bye week.
“Obviously I want to be better,” Purdy told reporters after the game. “For this team, this organization. Just taking care of the ball at crucial parts of the game. That’s the NFL. You’re not gonna blow teams out every week.
“In terms of three losses, as a quarterback, I take that on myself, where I can be better for this team in helping us win.”
All-Pro tight end George Kittle, meanwhile, addressed Purdy's play and the importance of protecting the ball.
San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle says his team needs to get back to taking care of the football and running it more. pic.twitter.com/hi5UvVxh0O
— Eric Williams (@eric_d_williams) October 30, 2023
"There’s two positions I would never want to play in football and that’s quarterback and quarterback," Kittle said. "Those are two tough positions.
“The only thing I would ask Brock to do is ‘hey, man try not to throw interceptions,’ he continued with a laugh. “I don’t know. Turnovers are hard. I’m not gonna put myself in his shoes and say I wouldn’t have made that throw. I don’t know what it takes to play quarterback. I don’t play that position.
“All I know is that it’s hard to win football games when you lose the turnover battle, which we’ve done two weeks in a row. We obviously just have to play better. We have to put ourselves in situations where we can run the football more and we don’t have to throw the ball so many times.”
What's next for Purdy, 49ers?
The mistakes mark a stark turnaround from the sizzling start to Purdy's career. In nine starts including three in the playoffs, Purdy threw 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions after taking over as San Francisco's quarterback. The 49ers went 8-1 in games that he started last season, losing only to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game after he left early with an elbow injury. In San Francisco's 5-0 start this season, he tallied a 9-to-0 interception ratio, drawing MVP buzz in the process.
Then he took three sacks and threw an interception in a Week 6 loss to the Cleveland Browns. Last week, he threw two interceptions in a stunning loss to the Minnesota Vikings. And now comes Sunday, when he may or may not have felt the lingering effects of a concussion sustained in that Week 7 loss.
Purdy was effective on Sunday outside of his two costly turnovers. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 365 yards with a touchdown. He spread the ball around, connecting nine times with Kittle for 149 yards and five with Aiyuk for 109 yards. Christian McCaffrey caught his only touchdown pass among his six receptions for 64 yards.
But the mistakes stood out and made the biggest impact on Sunday's outcome, especially when contrasted against an ascendent Burrow, who completed 28 of 32 attempts for three touchdowns and no turnovers.
It's not time to panic in San Francisco. This is still one of the league's most talented teams. And Purdy's track record — as short as it its — suggests that his recent mistakes are not the norm. But the 49ers have some kinks to work out that weren't apparent three weeks ago. Their bye week couldn't have arrived at a better time.