INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- With just under 10 minutes left in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the moment San Francisco 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt had dreamed of since he was young hung in the air for a second -- and then another and another and another.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford had just uncorked a misguided deep ball down the middle of the field, the pass theoretically intended for receiver Van Jefferson. But Tartt was the only one with a realistic chance to catch it.
All Tartt had to do was haul it in and the Niners' 10-point lead might have grown to their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons.
None of that happened. The ball and, potentially, the game, slipped through Tartt's fingers and fell harmlessly to the SoFi Stadium turf.
"That's a play I should make in my sleep and I didn't make it," Tartt said.
The Rams capitalized on Tartt's mistake, scoring two field goals to turn a 3-point deficit into a 20-17 win and a chance to win Super Bowl LIV on their home turf.
An emotional Tartt was left to pick up the pieces.
"It's a moment a lot of athletes I know dream of, just being in this moment, tie ball game 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."
No excuses!! I deserve all the criticism my way! Opportunity I dream of I came up short!!! Let my brothers down!! It Still won't define me as a person/player. Only will get stronger and better... #Believdat— Jaquiski 'Quaski' Tartt (@quaski) January 31, 2022
After the game, Tartt quickly went to Twitter and said, in part, "No excuses!! I deserve all the criticism my way." He followed by spending about five minutes answering questions from the media and shouldering the blame for the missed opportunity.
"I see it and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, he f---ed up, we're about to win this game,'" Tartt said. "It hit my hands, I thought I had it and I just, I don't know how I dropped it."
Moments after Tartt's drop, Niners linebacker Fred Warner reminded him there was plenty of football left to play. Alas, the missed chance to get the ball back and possibly go up three scores quickly gave way to renewed life for the Rams.
The Niners managed to hold the Rams to a field goal, but the defense was unable to fend off the Rams as San Francisco's offense couldn't muster a response.
Despite Tartt's drop, coach Kyle Shanahan was quick to remind that just last week Tartt made a possible game-saving tackle on a long pass for Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones. That tackle set up Ward's blocked field goal to keep the Niners within striking distance just before halftime.
"I thought he was one of the best players on the field last week versus Green Bay," Shanahan said. "I have loved him being on our team since I've been here and I know he's disappointed in that drop that he had, but there's a lot of other plays in that game and I'm very happy that Tartt was on our team this year."
That's a sentiment echoed by Tartt's teammates, many of whom did their best to lift him up after the game as best they could.
"It's hard to really say anything to help him in this moment," end Nick Bosa said. "Obviously, he missed an opportunity, but there's I think 70 other plays that I'm sure a lot of other guys missed a lot of opportunities out there. It's football. It's one play, and we're definitely going to be there for him."
Tartt now heads into an uncertain offseason. He's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent for the second time in as many years after posting 64 tackles in 14 games.
But it will be the play he didn't make that will linger for longer.
"It's a moment of truth and the moment of truth showed and I didn't step up," Tartt said. "I made a game-winning layup in high school, a game-winning interception in high school, so for me it's like I know I can do it. It's like being at the highest level of football; even when I was little you see those guys make those plays for the team, make the big-time interception and I was like, 'I can be that guy,' and when it was in the air, I was like, 'I'm going to be that guy.' I just didn't come up with it."