It was a day the San Francisco 49ers had to go off script. Their starting quarterback was playing with a torn ligament and fracture in his right thumb. Their Pro Bowl left tackle was out with an elbow injury. Their nickel cornerback was unable to play. Their punter left in the second quarter with a concussion.
“I was so proud of everybody in that locker room,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “They never stopped fighting. They had to. That’s a really good team. I was so proud of the guys.”
Hollywood endings work, because the heroes step up and save the day, and that’s what happened in LA on Sunday.
“It wasn’t stressful at all,” joked tight end George Kittle. “Our game plan was to go down 17-0, 17-3 at halftime. That was our goal. It’s a testament to this team: you never know who’s going to make a play.”
Down 17-0 in the second quarter, the 49ers came back to beat the Rams, 27-24, punching their ticket to the playoffs.
“It was an instant classic, for sure,” said defensive lineman Arik Armstead. “That was a game you dream of being able to play in.”
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had a rough start, with a fumble that the 49ers did recover and an interception. Ultimately, though, Garoppolo, who finished the day 23-of-32 for 316 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jauan Jennings to tie the game at 24-2 with 0:26 left in the fourth quarter, on a drive that also included a missile to wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
“Jimmy’s always been pretty good at bouncing back from picks,” Shanahan said. “…Gosh, he made some big plays. That pick in the red zone between him and George, that was real tough. But to come back and lead us down there over 80 yards to send us into overtime, he was unbelievable today.”
Shanahan was not wrong. It was a clutch drive with the season on the line, and Garoppolo delivered.
“To come back like we did, it took everything,” Garoppolo said. “I felt it after the game, and a lot of guys in the locker room did, too. It was worth it, though. It was one of those games you won’t forget anytime soon.”
The game was a microcosm of a 49ers season that has been a rollercoaster from Week 1 to Week 18.
The 49ers started overtime on offense and ended up kicking a field goal to go up, 27-24. The Rams got the ball with 2:39 left. Shortly thereafter, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw the ball into the hands of rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas, and it was over.
“I just did my job: See the ball, go get the ball,” Thomas said.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 10, 2022
Thomas, who started at corner after Emmanuel Moseley went to IR with a high-ankle sprain, struggled to find his footing but had improved over the last several weeks, was the unlikely hero, as his first career interception sealed the game.
“He’s definitely made a believer out of me the second half of this season,” Shanahan said. “I wouldn’t have believed it the way it started off. It sounds harsh. But it took time. When he got his opportunity, he was ready and showed what’s in him. He’s shown us he’s someone we can count on and he’ll get better.”
For Thomas, who opted out of his senior at the University of Michigan due to COVID-19, the rookie just needed some time.
“I knew I had to get back in football mode,” Thomas said. “I was out for a year, and once I got back in football mode, I knew it was going to be over, that it would be an ‘I’ve arrived’ moment. I had two picks in back-to-back periods in practice. [49ers GM John] Lynch nodded at me to keep on going. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m here, I’m here.’”
Moseley returned on Sunday and had an interception of his own.
Late in the third quarter, the wide receiver-turned running back-turned quarterback Samuel threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jennings.
“I’m just happy I caught it, honestly,” Jennings said. “It could have been bad.”
It was the only pass on a 10-play drive. Samuel really can do anything, and Jennings had himself a game, with six receptions for 94 yards and the two aforementioned touchdowns.
“Jauan’s one of those guys, the moment isn’t too big for him,” Garoppolo said. “He’s ready for it. You see in the huddle in his eyes when the guy is ready for it. Jauan doesn’t blink and you love having that for crucial situations.”
Crucial situations is where Jennings has thrived since getting his opportunity when wide receiver Mohamed Sanu suffered a knee injury earlier this season.
“I’ve grown up a lot,”. “This game of football will make you grow up. This team believes in me and encourages me, and I’m grateful to be here.”
“Jauan was a man today,” Shanahan said. “I love Jauan. You see the passion he plays with. You don’t want to tame it, but you have to a little. The fire he brings to the game is unbelievable, the way he blocks is the same way he runs routes and catches…Once Jauan got his opportunity, he never looked back, and he got better each week, and he was huge today.”
The 49ers are now on to Dallas to take on the NFC East Champion Cowboys on Sunday, January 16 at 1:30 pm PT in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.