Niners punch ticket to the playoffs with OT thriller over the Rams

Garoppolo overcomes injury, early deficit to propel San Francisco into the postseason

By Mychael Urban

Special to The Examiner

Bring on the Cowboys. The Niners found a way to squeeze into the NFC playoffs this past weekend, setting up a marquee matchup with one of their storied rivals.

Think Dwight Clark and Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. The memories will flood back for Niners fans, who have watched their team battle Dallas for decades, most memorably in the postseason.

“All it takes is to get in. We’ll see what happens in Dallas,” said Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who led his team to a gripping victory over the Los Angeles Rams to punch the team’s ticket to the postseason. “It’ll be a great challenge for us, but I know these guys are ready.”

Head coach Kyle Shanahan knows all about the rivalry, and he’s ready to author another chapter. He fondly recalled what the matchup meant to him as a child, when his father was coaching for the Niners.

“Oh, I think that’s as cool as it gets because that’s the coolest part of my childhood growing up I feel like. … It was seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade — ’92, ’93, ’94 — every single year. I thought we were the best team in the league. And I remember being on that sideline and just watching how good the Cowboys were and it was unbelievable,” he said.

Some legendary games to live up to, for sure. But it all wouldn’t be happening without the Niners big win Sunday in Los Angeles, where they pulled off the second-biggest comeback win in the NFL this season, stunning the host Rams 27-24 in overtime to secure a postseason berth as an NFC wild card.

Los Angeles, which backed into the NFC West title despite the loss, dominated the 49ers for much of the first half. Mercurial quarterback Matt Stafford carved up San Francisco’s depleted secondary while leading the Rams to a 17-0 lead late in the second quarter.

Tight end Tyler Higbee caught scoring passes of two and 15 yards, but All-Pro wideout Cooper Kupp — seven targets, seven catches for 118 yards, and a number of tough, textbook downfeld blocks — was every bit as impactful.

Garoppolo, playing with a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand that forced him to miss the Niners’ win over the Texans last week, started the comeback by engineering a six-play, 61-yard drive that ended with a Robbie Gould field goal on the final play of the half.

Kupp’s counterpart in both style and versatility, the Niners’ Deebo Samuel took over in the third quarter, first scoring on a 16-yard run to cut the deficit to 17-10. The Rams never looked quite the same thereafter.

Samuel, whose Swiss Army Knife skill set made him one of the NFL’s breakout stars of the season, tied things up on a trick pay with 1:46 left in the quarter, taking the ball from Garoppolo, rolling out right, and lofting a 24-yard TD pass to a wide-open Jauan Jennings under heavy pressure.

Samuel gained 45 yards on eight carries as a running back and caught four passes for 95 yards.

The Rams showed some resiliency by regaining the lead, 24-17, on a four-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Kupp with a little more than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

After the teams traded punts, Garoppolo took the field down seven with 84 second to play and 88 yards from the end zone. Sixty-one seconds later, he fired a 14-yard scoring strike to Jennings, who caught six passes for 94 yards. Next up, overtime.

Rapidly improving wideout Brandon Aiyuk had a big game for the Niners, as well, with six receptions for a team-high 107 yards.

A week after not being able to even grip a football, Garoppolo completed 23 of his 32 passes for 316 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

The 49ers won the coin toss before overtime, elected to receive, and got a 24-yard field goal from Gould to take the lead with 2:45 left in OT. Rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas sealed the 49ers’ playoff berth with a game-ending interception.

San Francisco’s defense recovered from a wobbly first half to hound Stafford from every angle in the second half. Arik Armstead had 2.5 of the Niners’ five sacks.

“We knew it would be a 60-minute game. A little extra in this one,” Garoppolo told Fox News after the victory. “We’ll remember this one for a while. This was a special one. It was a special moment. We wanted to get this win. And that’s what we did. … All things are coming together.”

Mychael Urban is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. He has been covering Bay Area sports for more than 30 years.

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