sfgate.com photo: San Francisco 49ers kicker Robbie Gould (9) is congratulated by teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal against the Los Angeles Rams during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019.
By Jeremy Harness
SANTA CLARA – George Kittle woke up Saturday morning to find out that the brother of his college, and current 49er, teammate C.J Beathard had been fatally stabbed. He said that for this reason, Saturday night’s game against the Rams “the hardest of my career.”
“(The day) sucked all around,” Kittle said. “Overall, it was a brutal day.”
Facing this, as well as a resilient Los Angeles Rams team that was fighting for a playoff spot, Kittle and the rest of the 49ers were able to band together and rally from an early deficit and some late-game struggles to pull out a 31-28 win at the horn, keeping their hopes for the NFC West division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs alive and sinking the Rams’ postseason aspirations altogether.
With the game tied in the final minutes, they faced a pair of third-and-16’s and converted both of them. Garoppolo found receiver Kendrick Bourne – who has developed a real knack for making big catches when they are most needed – and three plays later, he found a streaking Emmanuel Sanders, who had gotten deep behind corner Jalen Ramsey, with just under a minute to go.
That put the ball at LA’s 23-yard line, and from that point, the 49ers just ran a couple of plays in the middle of the field to set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning 33-yard field goal.
“This week, we made sure we knew what was on the line,” said linebacker Fred Warner, whose interception return for a touchdown late in the second quarter gave the 49ers a 24-21 lead at halftime. “We could have been way cleaner, but it’s all about (putting one) in the win column.”
The 49ers will now have eight days to prepare for a matchup in Seattle for the division title. The Seahawks currently hold the tie-breaker over the 49ers, so a victory is a must if they hope to get home-field advantage and a first-round bye. If they lose next Sunday, they will have a wild-card matchup on the road against the eventual NFC East champion.
“We know it’s going to be loud, we know it’s going to be a hostile environment,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “I can’t wait for it. It’s going to be awesome.
“Every week is a big game. This time of year, they all are.”
But first, the 49ers needed to win Saturday night, but the Rams gained the upper hand early, frustrating the defense with bootleg action to get down the field and grab a 21-10 second-quarter lead while the offense struggled to find its footing.
Garoppolo himself was not sharp at all in the first quarter. He found Deebo Samuel for a 9-yard hookup to start his night but did not complete another pass for the rest of the quarter. He was also picked off by Jalen Ramsey to kill the team’s third drive and finished the game with two interceptions.
However, Garoppolo got things together to start the second quarter, using the play-action that LA had used on the 49ers defense to march down the field. Samuel capped off the drive with a 19-yard fly-sweep run to narrow the Rams’ lead to 14-10.
The 49ers defense had major issues in the first half, as the vaunted defensive line was unable to get any pressure on Goff, and the secondary was picked apart as a result.
The 49ers got tired of the screen passes and dump-offs, and Warner did something about it with a minute left in the second quarter by jumping a screen route in the flat and returned it 46 yards for a score, giving his team its first lead of the night, 24-21.
Late in the third quarter, the Rams regained the lead on a seven-play 68-yard scoring march that saw right corner Ahkello Witherspoon get victimized by a pair of significant pass plays, including the 22-yard touchdown by Cooper Kupp.
As Goff used his tight ends to get ahead in the first quarter, Garoppolo utilized his in a lead-taking scoring drive late in the fourth quarter. He found Ross Dwelley deep over the middle to put the 49ers in scoring position while George Kittle, who is widely considered as the best tight end in football, broke free for a pair of big plays, including the 7-yard score that gave the 49ers a 31-28 advantage.