INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The end came sooner and in more heartbreaking fashion than the San Francisco 49ers could have imagined.
In a blown lead reminiscent of their most recent playoff loss (Super Bowl LIV), the Niners coughed up a 10-point fourth-quarter advantage to the Los Angeles Rams on the way to a devastating 20-17 loss in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
It brought an abrupt finish to a magical run in which the sixth-seeded Niners came within a hair of qualifying for the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. It was the end of their season, the end of a six-game winning streak against their NFC West nemesis and, quite possibly, the end of the Jimmy Garoppolo era as San Francisco's quarterback.
For those endings to happen, the Niners had to endure another late-game collapse. The same team that was 3-1 in the postseason with a fourth-quarter lead of 10-plus points since 2019 let another one slip away at the worst possible time. The rest of the NFL is 23-0 in those situations during that span, per ESPN Stats & Information data.
"We came up short today and that’s part of sports and part of life and we’ve got to deal with it," said coach Kyle Shanahan, "so those guys are hurting now, but they’ll rebound and be stronger for it.”
Before Sunday, the Rams were 1-23 when trailing by double digits in the second half since Sean McVay took over as coach in 2017. It was fitting that the second such victory came in the NFC Championship Game, since the other was in the 2018 NFC title game against the New Orleans Saints.
Clinging to a 17-7 lead in the fourth quarter, a Niners defense that spent much of the day on the field appeared to run out of gas. The Rams moved quickly for an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford to wide receiver Cooper Kupp. After adding a field goal to tie it, the Rams got another defensive stop and a 30-yard field goal to take the lead.
Garoppolo and the Niners' last-ditch attempt failed when the QB's effort to evade defensive tackle Aaron Donald resulted in Rams linebacker Travin Howard intercepting a pass that went through running back JaMychal Hasty's hands.
Now, the 49ers head into an offseason full of questions, none bigger than what awaits Garoppolo and the quarterback position. The plan all along has seemed to be to get through this season and then hand the keys over to rookie Trey Lance.
“Emotions are high after a game win or loss and it’s one of those things you’ve got to be glad it happened, smile from it and think about the good things," Garoppolo said. "We’ll see what happens in these next couple days, weeks, whatever, but I love this team.”
While Garoppolo gave the Niners enough to get to another NFC Championship Game appearance, his limitations were on display again Sunday, as San Francisco's offense struggled to find consistency. Garoppolo finished 16-of-30 for 233 yards with two touchdowns and the interception. He also had a bad miss for a would-be touchdown to open tight end George Kittle in the first half.
As has been the case often in Garoppolo's time with the Niners, it wasn't all bad. It wasn't all good. It just wasn't enough.
Pivotal play: With 9 minutes, 55 seconds left in the game, the Rams' Stafford lofted a deep pass to nobody in particular in the middle of the field. Niners safety Jaquiski Tartt camped under it with an opportunity for an easy interception and ... dropped it.
“It’s a moment a lot of athletes I know dream of, just being in this moment, tie ballgame and you can make the game changing play,” Tartt said. “For me, that’s something I was thinking about all week. I know I can make that play, and when the play came up, I didn’t make it. I know that was a big play in the game, a big opportunity for me and for the team, and as a player I just feel like I let my brothers down.”
On a day when points were precious, Tartt's miss proved disastrous, as the Rams followed by racing into Niners territory before settling for a field goal. Those three points tied the game at 17 and set the stage for Los Angeles to send San Francisco into the offseason.