INGLEWOOD -- Through three quarters Sunday in Los Angeles, the 49ers had the Rams right where they wanted them. The 49ers drug the star-studded Rams down into the mud and led the NFC Championship Game 17-14 with 12 minutes to play at SoFi Stadium.
Then, three plays changed everything.
After the Rams scored to cut the 49ers' lead to three, San Francisco quickly marched into LA territory and had a second-and-1 at the Rams' 44-yard line after a 9-yard run by Elijah Mitchell.
The next play was a handoff to Mitchell that was blown up for a loss of 1. On third-and-2, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan got cute and sent Trent Williams in motion from left to right, hoping to get the Rams' defense flowing with the eligible tackle. Instead of giving the ball to Deebo Samuel to follow Williams and get the 2 yards needed, Shanahan chose to give it to fullback Kyle Juszczyk up the middle, but A'Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines stopped him for no gain.
Shanahan elected to punt from plus territory, giving the Rams the ball back with a chance to tie the game or take the lead. On the first play of the drive, Matthew Stafford took a deep shot down the middle of the field. Jaquiski Tartt was in perfect position to make an easy interception, but the ball clanged off Tartt's hands and fell harmlessly to the ground. The Rams would march 63 yards on nine plays and tie the game on a 40-yard field goal by Matt Gay.
From that point on, Shanahan felt the momentum of the game was no longer in the 49ers' favor, and that those three consecutive plays were the turning point in San Francisco's 20-17 loss in Southern California.
"I thought the game was exactly the game we wanted up to that second-and-1," Shanahan said after the game. "Second-and-1, I’ll be thinking about that for a long time and then that third-and-2. And then we were just trying to draw them off. We weren’t going to go for it at midfield on fourth-and-2. The play right after that, the chance to get the pick. Those three plays in a row, and we had our opportunities, and we didn’t come through on those three plays and it kind of changed into a game we didn’t like as much.
"I just know how it was before those two downs, and where we were at, having the lead, and I thought we were moving down the field pretty good to get to second-and-1, didn’t feel like they were going to stop us," Shanahan continued. "Came up short there, lost a yard, and then they blew it up on short-yardage on third-and-2. Those are two huge plays. We almost had a chance to get it right back and missed that pick, and those guys got going and got into a rhythm.”
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Tartt took accountability after the game for the dropped interception that he knows would have changed how the final 10 minutes of the game unfolded.
"It's a moment that a lot of athletes dream of," Tartt said. "Being in this moment, tie ball game, and you can make that game-changing play, and for me, that's something I was thinking about all week. I know I can make that play, and the play came up and I didn't make it. I know it was a big play in the game, a big opportunity for me and for the team, and as a player, I feel like I let my brothers down."
The minute Stafford let the ball go, Tartt knew his moment had arrived.
"I see him, and I'm like, 'Oh, yeah, he f-----d up and we about to win this game,' " Tartt said about Stafford's should-have-been interception. "It hit my hands, I thought I had it, and I just dropped it. I didn't drop a ball in practice all week. There ain't too much you can do to practice a moment like that, you know? The only time you get that moment is when you get it. For me, it's the moment of truth. The moment of truth showed, and I didn't step up."
Tartt's dropped interception gave the Rams new life, and Stafford made just enough plays to get the Rams past their 49ers boogeyman and on to Super Bowl LVI.
While Tartt's gaffe will get the headlines, the 49ers still had 6:49 left to retake the lead. But Shanahan's offense was disjointed for the remainder of the game. In fact, Mitchell's 9-yard run that preceded the game-changing sequence was the 49ers' final positive play of the game.
On their next possession after the Rams tied the game, the 49ers went three-and-out and lost 5 yards. Then, after Gay edged the Rams ahead 20-17, the 49ers lost 3 yards before Jimmy Garoppolo threw a game-ending interception while trying to escape a sack from Aaron Donald.
With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the 49ers' best was required, and everyone from Shanahan to Tartt failed to meet the moment. And that's why they left SoFi Stadium lamenting the three plays that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.