George Kittle of the 49ers catches a pass against the Cowboys...

George Kittle of the 49ers catches a pass against the Cowboys during the third quarter in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Levi's Stadium on Jan. 22 in Santa Clara, Calif. Credit: Getty Images/Lachlan Cunningham

Late in the third quarter of last week’s playoff game against the Cowboys, tight end George Kittle made a remarkable catch that sparked the 49ers to victory. Running a route that wasn’t even supposed to be there, waving his arm to flag down quarterback Brock Purdy as a fourth option on the play that shouldn’t have existed, he received the pass.

That wasn’t enough, though. Kittle reached out for the football with his right hand and deflected it back to himself. When it bounced off his facemask, he reached back with both hands and this time secured the ball just before he was hit and tackled.

The play went for 30 yards and led to the 49ers’ only touchdown of the game in their 19-12 victory.

While most everyone else was impressed by the concentration and athleticism Kittle showed on that grab, the tight end himself laughed at the bobbling and breath-holding.

“I was just trying to be dramatic,” he said. “It was just for TV. I was trying to be a little dramatic, get the ratings up. That’s what we’re here for.”

That’s certainly what it seems Kittle is here for.

On a team stacked with talent all over the field, on a team whose legacy is tied to four Super Bowl wins in the 1980s and none since, on a team that reached the conference championship game last season but fell short, Kittle is the comic relief.

He has become the Clown Prince of Football, mugging for the cameras while in the huddle, delivering entertaining interviews that are part pro wrestling verve and part stand-up comic shtick, and playing the position of tight end just about as well as anybody ever has.

“I love football,” Kittle said this past week. “Every opportunity that we get to play is fantastic because you don’t know when your opportunity is going to end. And so I just try to take advantage of those opportunities. I try to be myself. I try to have fun. Football is a lot easier when you’re having fun.”

The 49ers certainly appreciate that from Kittle. As the games get bigger and the tension level gets higher, he somehow manages to make everyone looser and more relaxed.

“Times we sort of feel uptight and whatnot, Kittle is like the guy to put a smile on your face and say, ‘Hey, we’re good enough,’ that kind of thing,” Purdy said. “He does bring energy and good vibes to everyone, and honestly, I do feel like he gets us back into the zone of playing well.”

Kittle’s play makes it easier for others, too. Especially a rookie quarterback who is on the verge of doing something no other first-year player at his position ever has. Purdy is one win away from a Super Bowl appearance, and a lot of that has to do with Kittle.

In the seven games since Purdy took over as the starter, Kittle has 29 receptions for 425 yards and seven touchdowns.

“I love throwing to him,” Purdy said. “I trust him, and we just go from there.”

Kittle may carry luggage with an image of The Joker from Batman with the phrase “Why so serious?” printed on it, but he does have a down-to-business side to him too. Getting to and winning a Super Bowl is no laughing matter. Kittle has been a big part of all three deep postseason runs by the 49ers in the last four years. In the 2019 season, they made the Super Bowl and lost to Kansas City. Last season, they lost to the eventual NFL champion Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

“It’s what you dreamt about since you were a kid,” Kittle said. “It’s what you dream about when you’re in high school and college. You dream about it when you’re in the NFL. You dream about situations like this. Whether it’s a hunger, starvation or desperation, you do everything you can to make sure at the end of the game you can win it.”

Kittle has looked back at each of those final games of the season and hopes to do at least one thing differently this time around.

“Win the game earlier,” he said. “That’s part of it. You go back whether it was the NFC Championship Game last year or the Super Bowl, I’m pretty sure our first drive on both of those games, we didn’t do anything on it. On the second drive, I don’t know how effective we were. Let’s maybe get off to a hot start, get some points on the board so we’re not playing from behind or having to make miracle plays at the end of the game . . . If you make plays early enough, first, second quarter, then you might not put yourself in those situations.”

Against the Eagles on Sunday, that will be a key to establishing the tone of the game.

“If you give up a lead to these guys and they can sit back, and that’s why they have all those interceptions and they lead the league in sacks by like 10-plus,” Kittle said. “They’re really good at that. Their offense has played at a really high level and their defense has been able to pin their ears back and attack people.”

Whether the 49ers have an early lead or not, whether they are in a low-scoring brawl with the Eagles or an offensive fireworks extravaganza, Kittle likely will be in the middle of it.

And he’ll likely be grinning, goofing or cutting the tension in some other way too.

“I don’t want anyone to get so stressed out and jittering, anxious because we’re in a huge football game,” Kittle said. “Because at the end of the day, we are playing a kid’s game. I get the stakes are incredibly high, but goodness gracious, if you have fun, it’s so much easier.”

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