Eight weeks is a long time for frustration to fester.
The Los Angeles Rams were a 7-2 ballclub as they took the field in San Francisco on Monday, November 15. More than all of that, they were the talk of the football world, having just added Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller to their roster. They now had the look of this super-team that was ready to take on all comers. Two hours and fifty minutes later, they limped into the locker room on the embarrassing end of a 31-10 blowout by a 49er team that had entered the game just 3-5.
The loss was humbling enough, but the manner of it made it that much harder to swallow. San Francisco bludgeoned them on the ground, running the football 44 times for 156 yards. It was San Francisco’s fifth consecutive victory against their division rival, and their formula was embarrassingly simple. They were – once again – the more physical team. Starting their first drive on their own 7-yard line, the 49ers bullied the Rams off the ball going 93 yards on 18 grueling plays – 13 of them runs.
For eight weeks, the Rams have worn that loss while putting themselves in position to win the division. These two separate threads of the season ran together in the season finale last Sunday. Now 12-4, the Rams could win the division and claim the conference’s second seed with one more win. And, as serendipity would have it, their opponent for their first-ever Week 18 game were those same 49ers. To make the pot even sweeter, San Francisco came into LA riding a 6-2 streak that had started with their Monday night win, and were one win away from sneaking into the playoffs.
In one fell swoop (as it were), the Rams could sew up their division, claim the second seed and knock the 49ers into the offseason – all while proving that they weren’t as soft as the league was starting to think they were.
For 29-and-a-half minutes, the Rams were all of that. They landed on the 49ers like the Marines landing on a beach.
Taking the opening kickoff, LA drained the first 8:53 off the clock, converting three third-downs on their way to a first-and-ten on the San Francisco 19. The 49ers held them out of the end zone on that drive, forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal. The reprieve was only temporary.
San Francisco managed one first down on their first possession before punting back to the Rams, who went immediately back on the attack. This time, LA’s 12-play, 61-yard, 6:25 drive found the end zone, and San Francisco’s early deficit grew to 10 points.
Four minutes later, it looked like the game had slid away from the 49ers. After all three of their plays in the subsequent possession lost yards, San Francisco found itself punting from its own 7-yard line. When Mitch Wishnowsky’s 43-yard punt was returned 31 yards by Brandon Powell, the Rams were set-up on the 49er 19. It took them just 3 plays to make the score 17-0.
The San Fran defense withstood one final first-half drive from the Rams without allowing further damage, but the halftime statistics gave clear evidence of Los Angeles’ complete domination.
LA controlled the ball for 19:53 of that first half, including going 7-10 on third down. San Francisco finished the first half with just 19 offensive plays (remember they had had 18 on their first possession on that Monday night game) for only 83 yards. The 49ers had just 10 rushing yards on only 5 carries.
And don’t for a moment believe that the Rams weren’t emotionally invested in this rivalry. After that last touchdown, Ram coach Sean McVay raced into the end zone to join in the celebration.
To this point, the game couldn’t be more satisfying to Coach McVay and the Ram organization.
But fortunately for San Francisco, they didn’t go into the locker room down the full 17-0. Getting the ball with 38 seconds left in the half, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo got the ball to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for two “chunk” plays – gains of 19 and 26 yards respectively – that positioned the 49ers for an end-of-half field goal.
That may not sound terribly significant, but the points would turn out to be vital, and just that late offensive success would be enough to ease San Francisco back into rhythm.
Tale of Two Halves
As a kind of microcosm of this most unpredictable season, the 49ers dominated the game’s second half every bit as thoroughly as the Rams had dominated the opening half. San Francisco held the ball for 19:22 of the second half, outgaining LA 287-103.
Again, the game came down to Garoppolo. Taking over on his own 12-yard line, down 24-17 with 1:27 left on the clock and no timeouts, Jimmy threw for 21 yards to Aiyuk and 43 yards to Deebo Samuel to position things for a game-tying, 14-yard toss to Jauan Jennings with 26 ticks left.
San Francisco would subsequently win in overtime, 27-24 (gamebook) (summary). The win sent the 49ers into the dance as the sixth seed. In spite of their loss, the Rams won their division anyway when Arizona lost.
While the two-minute drive was compelling, the game’s signature moment came on San Francisco’s second drive of the second half. Having already trimmed the LA lead to 17-10, and after turning the Ram offense away on their first second-half possession, the 49ers took over on their own 26 with 8:48 left in the quarter.
They proceeded to call ten straight running plays – nine of them right up the middle.
Same Old Rams?
Back in the day, when the Rams were in St Louis and the 49ers were perennial Super Bowl contenders, the 49ers beat the Rams 17 consecutive times from 1990 to 1998 (only the last 8 of those wins occurred during the Rams’ tenure in StL). After these bi-annual beatings, the 49ers would always shrug and say, “same old Rams.”
No one said “same old Rams” after this game. Even so, that kind of sequence – ten consecutive runs up the middle – sends a message. After just 10 ground yards in the first half, San Fran racked up 96 yards (on 20 attempts) in the second thirty minutes, and added 29 more (on 6 attempts) in their overtime field goal drive.
After halftime, the 49ers racked up 125 rushing yards on 26 carries (4.8 per). They converted 7 of 10 third downs over that span. Even if no one said it, it was indeed the same old Rams.
After a shaky first half against Baltimore, Matthew Stafford and the LA passing game scorched the Ravens in the second half of Week 17. He was 14 for 14 for 162 yards and a touchdown in the second half of that game. He began the contest against the 49ers in that same vein – completing 15 of his first 16 for 153 yards and 2 more touchdowns. From halftime of Week 17 to halftime of Week 18, Stafford completed 29 of 30 passes (96.7%) for 315 yards (10.5 per attempt) and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions – a 143.8 passer rating.
In the second half of the 49er game – and struggling against an unrestrainable San Francisco pass rush – Matthew finished the contest completing just 6 of his last 16 passes for 85 yards. He did throw a touchdown pass, but also tossed two more interceptions – bringing his total to 7 over the last 3 games of the season. The final interception was an underthrow in overtime. Given their opportunity to answer the San Francisco field goal, Stafford had Beckham up the right sideline with a step on 49er corner Ambry Thomas. But Odell could only watch helplessly as Matthew’s short throw ended up in the arms of the San Francisco defensive back, ending the game.
As much as the 49er offensive line physically dominated the Rams defense, the San Fran defensive line had its way against the Ram offense. LA ran for only 14 yards on 15 first half carries, on its way to 64 rushing yards for the game – at 2.4 yards per attempt. More than half of that yardage came after contact, as the defensive front couldn’t be parted. Sony Michel – LA’s leading rusher – carried the ball 21 times, getting only 13 yards before being contacted by the defense (0.6 per carry). Five of their 27 running plays were tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
Stafford, meanwhile, was sacked 5 times, hit 6 other times and hurried 3 more – meaning disruptive pressure on 37.8% of his 37 drop-backs. No matter who is under center for your team, he will rarely thrive under that kind of pressure.
So the Rams are off to the playoffs, hosting round three against Arizona, with all of the question marks still hovering over them. They are an undeniably talented team, and they are unquestionably capable of dominating on any given Sunday. But consistency remains a lingering question. And now, so does their toughness.
Wither Jimmy G
Headed to Dallas to play the Sunday afternoon game, the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo are back in the playoffs – their middling 10-7 record accented by a season-closing 7-2 run.
In the closing drives – the field goal just before the half and the tying touchdown at the end of the game – Jimmy completed 8 of 9 passes (not counting the spike right before the field goal) for 144 yards and the touchdown. He was 4 for 5 for 50 yards as he drove them to the winning points in overtime.
The last I’ve heard from the 49ers is that Jimmy’s job will be rookie Trey Lance’s as soon as he’s “ready.” That means – I suppose – that however deep into the playoffs this team runs, there is strong likelihood that this will be the end of five very interesting years for Garoppolo in the city by the bay.
Beginning with 2017, when he started his 49er career with a 5-0 record before missing the rest of the season with an injury, Jimmy’s tenure as the San Francisco signal caller has seen plenty of both wins and injuries. In 5 years, Garoppolo has made 45 starts – 9 a year, or marginally more than half of the available starts. But the team is 31-14 in those games, with Jimmy posting an outstanding 98.3 passer rating.
If this is, in fact, his final season here, then San Francisco can only hope that Lance will develop into a quarterback as good as Jimmy. The real question surrounding Garoppolo is just exactly what will his next team be getting.
Is Garoppolo an Elite Quarterback?
After watching him carefully for the last several seasons, I have to say that if elite is the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes level, then no. Jimmy doesn’t belong with that group. He lacks that superstar gear that these other guys have. You will rarely see Garoppolo thoroughly take over a contest and dominate the other team the way that those other guys can.
This doesn’t relegate Jimmy to the ”game manager” category.
Whoever gets him next will be getting a top quarterback. Jimmy performs all of the quarterback duties at a very high level. Furthermore, he makes big plays at important times of the game, and his leadership abilities are among the best in the league. He commands the huddle and easily earns the trust and confidence of his teammates. You almost never see Garoppolo without a smile on his face, an that inherent enjoyment and the easy confidence that it expresses rubs off on the teams that he plays for.
Could Garoppolo win a Super Bowl somewhere? If he can stay healthy, he certainly could. Could that place be San Francisco? It could. He, in fact, seems an excellent fit for Kyle Shanahan’s clever smoke-and-mirrors offense.
Of course, he will have to figure out how to stay on the field.
Speaking of Quarterbacks
The team that topped Garoppolo and the 49ers in that Super Bowl two years ago – the Kansas City Chiefs – also struggled out of the gate this year. They started 3-4 before clipping off 8 straight wins. Going into their Saturday season finale, Kansas City still had a shot at the top seed in its conference.
But, against a 7-9 Denver team that had nothing to play for except pride, the Chiefs almost stumbled down into the third seed, as it took a fourth-quarter defensive score to ease them past the Broncos, 28-24 (gamebook) (summary).
Although they threatened numerous blitzes, Vic Fangio’s group actually sent an extra rusher only twice in Mahomes’ fifty drop-backs. It was part of an afternoon-long chess match, as Denver mixed looks and coverages, trying – and, for the most part succeeding – in staying one step ahead of the high-powered KC offense. It helped that Kansas City’s star receiver Tyreek Hill was nursing a heel injury and played sparingly. Even so, down three starting defensive backs, the Bronco defense held up heroically, almost completely denying the deep pass.
For the game, Patrick completed only 3 of his 14 passes aimed at targets more than ten yards up field. Mahomes completed 27 passes that afternoon, but to targets that averaged just 2.41 yards from the line of scrimmage (the average NFL pass is caught 5.74 yards from scrimmage).
Unfortunately, denying the deep completion is only part of the battle against the Chiefs. In this contest, they atoned for the depth of their receptions with yards after the catch. Of Patrick’s 270 passing yards, 205 came after the catch – an average of 7.59 yards per.
Particularly dangerous in these situations were receiver Mecole Hardman (99 of his 103 receiving yards coming after the catch) and running backs Jerick McKinnon (40 of his 26) and Darrel Williams (33 of his 30). The screen pass, was, in fact, the most dangerous part of the Chief offense on this day. Mahomes completed 10 of his 11 screen passes for 126 yards and a touchdown (to McKinnon).
Fangio Moves On
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that this contest would be the last that Fangio would coach for the Broncos. The supremely classy coach – whose performance was much better than his front office recognized – had nothing but accolades for the team and front office.
In the post-game interview after his last game, a reporter asked him why Denver has been unable to narrow the gap between themselves and the rest of their division – all of whom were in playoff contention right up to the last game of the season. After the briefest of pauses, Vic said – in an almost offhanded manner – “well, those other three all have top shelf quarterbacks.”
And there it is. The difference between the Broncos and the rest of the division is pretty much completely covered in the gap that separates Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert from Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. Coach Fangio’s unforgiveable sin was the same as Mike Zimmer’s (who we talked about last week) in Minnesota. They made the mistake of hitching their fortunes to the wrong quarterback.
Whoever next takes the reigns in Denver will suffer the same fate in about three years unless he can find that guy. In an NFL that’s increasingly quarterback-centric, it becomes all the more critical to find that quarterback who can take you to the promised land. Whatever else you do well as a coach, your top skill had better be finding a top-shelf quarterback.
Kinda makes you think that San Francisco should re-visit its Garoppolo/Lance decision before it’s too late, doesn’t it.