San Francisco 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt might have had a Super Bowl trip in his hands. All he had to do was catch a Matthew Stafford pass thrown right to him.
It’s rare that a dropped interception ends up being the moment a game turns, but Tartt dropping a pass that hit him right in the hands was the turning point in the Los Angeles Rams’ comeback win. They beat the 49ers 20-17 to win the NFC championship, coming back from a 10-point deficit to start the fourth quarter.
The Rams’ comeback was about more than one play. Give them credit for making plenty of big plays. Cooper Kupp in particular added to his unbelievable season with some massive plays, totaling 142 yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches. And the 49ers had plenty of chances after Tartt’s drop to beat the Rams. But it was clear which play turned the game.
Stafford threw a reckless pass down the middle of the field in the fourth quarter, and it sailed straight to Tartt. Tartt had nobody around him, the pass hit him in the hands, and he dropped it. On the next play Odell Beckham Jr. caught a 29-yard pass and the Rams got 15 more yards on a personal foul. That set up a game-tying field goal. The Rams got a stop after that, marched for a go-ahead field goal with 1:46 left, then picked off Jimmy Garoppolo’s wild third-down pass as he was being hit by Aaron Donald to win it.
The Rams move on to Super Bowl LVI, where they’ll play the Cincinnati Bengals. Their season was very close to being over on what would have been a bad Stafford interception. Instead, they’ll stay in Los Angeles for a home Super Bowl.
49ers grind out lead by halftime
The Rams had chances to go into halftime with a bigger lead. Stafford threw an interception on a pass into the end zone with the Rams in field-goal range. Kupp dropped a short pass that could have gone all the way to the end zone, and a few plays later Ben Skowronek misplayed a deep pass when he was wide open in the end zone. The Rams missed a field goal at the end of that drive. The 49ers took the ball after that missed field goal and drove for a field goal themselves as the first half ended.
The 49ers led 10-7 at halftime and it didn’t make much sense. The Rams outplayed them in the first half and didn’t even have a lead to show for it.
The 49ers had a huge sequence in the third quarter. On third-and-1 they took away a quick pass to Kupp in the flat and Stafford threw it away. On fourth-and-1 Stafford was stopped short on a quarterback sneak. The Rams challenged but there was no replay angle that showed Stafford got the yard he needed.
On the next drive Jauan Jennings caught a third-and-10 pass short of the first down, and Jennings just bulled his way through Rams defenders to a first down. Georgie Kittle caught a touchdown later in the drive and the 49ers led 17-7.
At that point, it looked like the 49ers’ fantastic late-season surge and playoff run would lead to a Super Bowl trip. And it might have, had Tartt not dropped that interception.
Game tightened in fourth quarter
The Rams were down 10 but far from done. Kupp scored his second touchdown of the game, with Stafford hitting the NFL’s most productive receiver this season in the end zone for an 11-yard score on third down. Samuel was stopped on the 14-yard line on the ensuing kickoff return, and the 49ers were in a bit of a hole. They needed a long drive to stop the Rams’ momentum.
Garoppolo hit some big passes to Eli Mitchell and Samuel to get the Rams past midfield. The 49ers made a questionable decision to punt instead of going for it on fourth-and-2. Kyle Shanahan put his offense on the field after the Rams used their final challenge and timeout asking officials to review if Kyle Juszczyk fumbled on a third-down run, but they were just trying to draw the Rams offsides and punted after a delay-of-game penalty. Shanahan should have gone for it. It doesn’t take a deep dive into analytics to come to that conclusion. Tartt’s drop will be mentioned a lot, but don’t forget Shanahan making a bad decision right before that.
The Rams tied it on the field goal after Tartt’s drop. The 49ers went three-and-out on their next drive and the Rams were in prime position to win. The Rams marched on a championship drive. A big Kupp catch for 25 yards on third-and-3 put the Rams at the 12-yard line. They were in field-goal position when the two-minute warning hit. Stafford was sacked on second down, and the Rams threw short to Kupp on third down, settling for the field goal and hoping their defense could get a stop.
The 49ers got into the playoffs when Garoppolo led a huge game-tying drive in Week 18 at the Rams, leading to an overtime win. They needed another clutch drive, but on third-and-13 Garoppolo was about to be tackled by Donald and flung the ball wildly to avoid the sack. Travin Howard picked it off. That ended it.
The Rams had a remarkable comeback, the second big comeback in the two conference championship games. They had some help, too.