Kyle Shanahan pulled aside his star tight end and apologized to George Kittle for not getting him more opportunities in the second half to set an NFL record.
The coach even said sorry a second time.
Quarterback Nick Mullens placed the blame on himself after Kittle fell 4 yards short of Shannon Sharpe’s NFL record by a tight end of 214 yards receiving.
Kittle still had a brilliant Sunday afternoon, making an 85-yard touchdown reception on the way to 210 yards receiving and becoming the 49ers’ first tight end to reach the 1,000-yard milestone to lead San Francisco past the sluggish, injury-plagued Denver Broncos 20-14.
“Four yards, ahhh, it’s all right,” Kittle shrugged nonchalantly, unfazed by a near miss. “Next time. Just talk to Nick and Coach Shanahan, they’ll figure it out.”
Kittle’s long TD reception on a pass from Mullens early in the second quarter put the Niners up 13-0 — “George flashed in my eyes,” his QB said — and Denver (6-7) never found a groove in seeing its three-game winning streak snapped.
Kittle had all of his yards and seven receptions in the first half and was targeted just once after halftime. Again, no big deal.
“We won. That’s about all that matters,” Kittle said.
Broncos quarterback Case Keenum struggled to find any rhythm after the Broncos lost top wideout Emmanuel Sanders to a torn Achilles tendon in practice during the week.
Dante Pettis added a 1-yard touchdown reception just before halftime for the Niners (3-10).
But this was Kittle’s sparkling afternoon from the very start. He has provided a major lift for an offense that dealt with the blow of losing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 3 at Kansas City.
“We had one blown coverage, and a couple where we just didn’t cover him,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said.
Mullens connected on eight of his first 12 throws for 124 yards and wound up 20 of 33 for 332 yards and a 102.1 rating.
“George had one heck of a day, 4 yards short of the record. You can blame that on me, I guess,” Mullens said.
Denver (6-7), which sought its first four-game winning streak since starting the 2016 season 4-0, fell behind 20-0 at halftime then managed two second-half touchdowns to make things interesting.
Phillip Lindsay ran for a 3-yard score in the third then Case Keenum hit DaeSean Hamilton on a 1-yard TD toss with 3:53 remaining. Keenum went 24 of 42 for 186 yards.
San Francisco ended a three-game skid. The 49ers had lost their previous two games by 18 and 27 points, including a 43-16 defeat at rival Seattle last week.
Denver’s Von Miller sacked Mullens for a 9-yard loss late in the second quarter. Including the postseason, Miller’s 103½ sacks matched the franchise record held by Simon Fletcher.
Meanwhile, linebacker Bradley Chubb had two more sacks for 12 on the season to break Miller’s franchise rookie record of 11½ set in 2011.
The previous time any 49ers player had 1,000 yards was in 2014, when Anquan Boldin had 1,062 yards receiving and Frank Gore 1,106 yards rushing.
In addition, Kittle’s 52-yard catch and run to end the first quarter moved him past Vernon Davis for the 49ers franchise record for yards receiving by a tight end in a season.
Kittle came in needing 73 yards to top Davis’ mark of 965 yards set in 2009.
“It’s an honor. … He set the standard,” Kittle said.
On San Francisco’s nine-play opening scoring drive — capped by Robbie Gould’s 40-yard field goal — Kittle made receptions of 31 and 5 yards.
Gould made a 29-yarder early in the second.
Broncos: Cornerback Isaac Yiadom suffered a shoulder injury. Wideout Courtland Sutton nursed a thigh injury.
49ers: Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was able to return after landing hard on his left ankle late in the game when he went down defending a pass on the sideline.
Broncos: Host Cleveland on Saturday.
49ers: Host Seattle on Sunday.
AROUND THE NFL SUNDAY
–The New Orleans Saints became the second NFL team to clinch a division title by rallying to victory at Tampa. The Saints trailed 14-3 at halftime before Drew Brees threw for a touchdown and ran for another in a 28-14 decision over the Buccaneers. He shrugged off a pair of turnovers to throw a 1-yard TD pass to Zach Line, then scored on a 1-yard sneak. Brees completed 24 of 31 passes for 201 yards and one interception.The 11-2 Saints claimed the NFC South and moved closer to wrapping up a first-round bye in the playoffs.
–The best finish of the day belonged to the Miami Dolphins as they pulled out a 34-33 win over the Patriots on the game’s final play. The Pats were 16 seconds away from a 33-28 victory until Miami scored on a pass and double-lateral that was capped by Kenyan Drake’s 52-yard run. Ryan Tannehill was 14 of 19 for 265 yards, the last 14 of which allowed Miami to improve to 7-6 and drop the Patriots to 9-4. Tom Brady had 358 yards passing and three touchdowns for the Patriots, who failed to clinch the AFC East.
— The 9-4 Bears stifled the Rams in a battle of NFC division leaders as Eddie Goldman led a dominant defensive effort in Chicago’s 15-6 victory at Soldier Field. Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff threw a career-high four interceptions and was sacked three times, with Goldman getting to him for a tiebreaking safety early in the third quarter. Bradley Sowell became the first Bears offensive lineman in 11 years with a touchdown reception when he caught a 2-yarder from Mitchell Trubisky in the third quarter. The Rams were held to 214 total yards and dropped to 11-2, tying them with the Saints for the top record in the conference.
— The Chiefs clinched an AFC playoff berth with a 27-24 win over the Ravens on Harrison Butker’s 36-yard field goal in overtime. Patrick Mahomes threw for 377 yards and two touchdowns, including a 5-yard pass to Damien Williams that tied the game with 53 seconds left in regulation. Tyreek Hill caught eight passes for 139 yards for the 11-2 Chiefs, including three in overtime to set up the eventual winning field goal. The 7-6 Ravens ended a three-game winning streak and stayed a half-game behind Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North.
— Derek Carr threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Derek Carrier with 21 seconds left before Chris Boswell slipped on a potential game-tying, 40-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the Raiders’ 24-21 win over the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger returned from a rib injury to lead a go-ahead touchdown drive that Carr answered for the Raiders. Roethlisberger finished 25 for 29 for 282 yards and two TDs, but the Steelers dipped to 7-5-1 with their third straight loss.
— The Chargers improved to 10-3 and took a major step toward earning an AFC playoff berth by holding off the Bengals, 26-21. Philip Rivers threw for 220 yards and Michael Badgley kicked four field goals, including a team-record 59-yarder that helped Los Angeles stay two games behind the AFC West-leading Chiefs. Austin Ekeler rushed for 66 yards on 15 carries for the Chargers with Melvin Gordon missing his second straight game due to a knee injury.
— The Texans’ nine-game winning streak is over, and their lead in the AFC South is down to two games after Andrew Luck threw for 399 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 24-21 win at Houston. T.Y. Hilton had 199 receiving yards and Zach Pascal grabbed a 12-yard TD pass that put the Colts up 24-14. Deshaun Watson threw for 267 yards and a late fourth-quarter touchdown for the 9-4 Texans.
— The Cowboys stayed atop the NFC East as Dak Prescott threw his third touchdown pass to Amari Cooper on the first possession of overtime to complete a 29-23 victory against the Eagles. The Cowboys finished with 576 yards, their most since gaining 578 against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns, including a pair of tying scores in the fourth quarter.
— The Panthers continued to play themselves out of the NFC playoff hunt with their fifth straight loss, 26-20 to the Browns. Jarvis Landry caught a touchdown pass and ran for one to help Cleveland keep its faint playoff hopes alive. Baker Mayfield finished 18 of 22 for 238 yards, including his 51-yard TD to Landry.
— Aaron Rodgers threw two touchdown passes and set an NFL record for interception-free football while leading the Packers past the Falcons, 34-20 in Green Bays’s first game under interim coach Joe Philbin. Aaron Jones ran for a 29-yard score in the third quarter, while the defense limited quarterback Matt Ryan following a game-opening touchdown drive. The Packers moved to 5-7-1 and sent the Falcons to their fifth consecutive loss, clinching Atlanta’s first losing season in four years.
— Saquon Barkley ran for a 78-yard touchdowns and Eli Manning threw for three scores while the Giants were building a 40-0 lead in a 40-16 shellacking of the Redskins. Barkley finished with 170 yards rushing and the Giants’ defense recorded three interceptions and five sacks in the team’s fourth win in five games since a 1-7 start. The 6-7 Redskins dropped their fourth in a row and did little under starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was 6 of 14 for 38 yards and two picks before being pulled in favor of Josh Johnson.
— Darius Slay returned an interception 67 yards for a touchdown in the Lions’ 17-3 win at Arizona. Zach Zenner’s 1-yard touchdown run with 4:05 to play put the game out of reach. The 5-8 Lions dropped the Cardinals to 3-10 by winning in Arizona for the first time in nine tries since 1993.
— Elijah McGuire scored on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1 with 1:17 remaining to push the Jets past the Bills, 27-23. Sam Darnold returned to the game and completed three of five passes for 52 yards on the go-ahead drive to help New York end a six-game losing streak. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen ran for 101 yards and a TD and was 18 of 36 for 206 yards and two interceptions.