LOS ANGELES – League games usually go two ways. They can be embarrassing outbursts that expose a team as a noticeable inferior. Or they can be instant classics, putting two worthy opponents into gripping drama.
Sunday’s relationship in Los Angeles was great theater … until it ended in tragedy.
After trading big plays, wasted chances, expensive gaffes and defensive defenses for 60 minutes, the Rams emerged victorious over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, 20-17, ending San Francisco’s magical end-of-season run that fell just one. game before a trip to the Super Bowl LVI.
It’s been a season of ups and downs, with many canceling the Niners early on, when they started with a 3-5 record. But the team never stopped alone, gathering around manager Kyle Shanahan to win the last game of the season, against these same Rams, to qualify for the playoffs. They went to Dallas and beat a very talented team of Cowboys. They traveled to Green Bay, where they concluded the Packers season.
But Cinderella’s story ended on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, not too far from Tinseltown itself.
This game had many twists, with the Niners receiving the advantage of good luck and better rebounds for the first three quarters. Early on, a reversed pass was intercepted by San Francisco’s Jimmie Ward in the end zone, blocking the Rams’ first major scoring threat. Two horrific passes by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo landed on the turf harmlessly, barely avoiding game-changing turnovers. The Niners put down a punt at the three-yard line. And they benefited from a generous spot in what appeared to be a crucial fourth down at the end of the third quarter.
The momentum and mojo, however, undeniably changed in the fourth quarter as Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford retired and released a long pass to the ground that was way off target. Niners cornerback Jaquiski Tartt backed off, awaiting safe interception. But he hit him in the hands, then in the face and he fumbled. Surely missing a turnover, Tartt lay down on the ground, face down, agonizing for the failed game. He would give the Niners a chance to increase their lead and cement the victory.
We moved on to the fourth quarter, where the two teams found themselves stuck at 17-17 with less than two minutes to go. The Rams took to the field, preparing Matt Gay to kick a 30-yard field goal with less than two minutes to go, sealing San Francisco’s fate. The Niners recovered the ball with 1:49 remaining, plenty of time to go down and score a winning touchdown, or draw and force extra time. But the dream ended quickly.
The season actually ended with an absolute circus game that found Garoppolo fighting for his life deep within the Niners territory, Rams’ defenders draped him over, desperately trying to unload the ball. Then he did it. A really unfortunate shovel pass was overturned in the air, then eliminated by Travin Howard of the Rams. The Rams knelt down and the celebration began.
It could very well be Jimmy G’s last pass for the Niners, who are expected to be making the popular field general this off-season. It seems. It was a class act throughout his tenure and he deserved better. But this is the NFL. Which usually means “not for long” for most players.
Now, the Niners return to Santa Clara to reflect on a lot of things to do, want and need. Tartt will forever reproduce that drop in his mind. So will everyone else.
After the defeat, Deebo Samuel sat on the Niners bench alone with a towel over his head. The man who emerged as the new NFL superstar sat on the bench by himself, finally raising his head to watch the Rams celebrate. It was heartbreaking to see him there, comforted by the staff members. His teammates were all off the pitch, but Deebo just sat there, staring into space, clearly obsessed with what he might have been.
Outside the camp, the Rams were making snow angels out of confetti.