NFL 2021 NFC Championship Game Preview: 49ers at Rams

The NFC West was all the rage coming into this 2021 season, and sure enough, it delivered. While the Seahawks regressed and the 7-0 Cardinals imploded after being the NFL’s last unbeaten team, the 49ers and Rams are meeting in the NFC Championship Game after vanquishing Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, perhaps for good, in Green Bay and Tampa Bay.

The NFC West will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the last 10 seasons. San Francisco is looking for a three-game sweep after the team’s 17-point comeback in Los Angeles in Week 18 got them in the tournament in the first place. One more win is either going to put Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan in their second Super Bowl in the last four years with the hope of winning it all this time.

Is it going to be a rematch of Super Bowl 54 between the 49ers and Chiefs, a rematch of the 54-51 game in 2018 between the Rams and Chiefs should both home teams win, or could two road upsets produce the third 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl? I’m not sure the league and networks want any part of a Rams-Bengals Super Bowl this year.

The AFC will be decided first on Sunday afternoon with the Chiefs a strong favorite at home. This game looks more likely to produce an upset with the 49ers as a 3.5-point underdog. Both teams should enter it with confidence, but I feel there is more pressure on the Rams to overcome one of their toughest opponents and make this “all in” approach with their roster construction pay off with a Super Bowl.

See my full Bengals-Chiefs preview here (link to come).

How Hard Is It to Beat a Team Three Times?

On the surface, of course it is hard to beat a division foe three times in the same season, which would include a playoff meeting. But what happens when a team is already 2-0 heading into that playoff matchup? It didn’t work out for the Saints against Tampa Bay last year thanks to four turnovers, but the 49ers are also in an unusual position of being the road team this week.

Of the 23 times in the modern era where a team was going for the 3-0 sweep in the playoffs, this is only the fifth time that team is on the road. Those road teams are 2-2 in the playoffs with the 1999 Titans most famously handing Jacksonville all three of its losses that season. These teams in the conference championship round are 4-1, and the overall playoff record for the team going for the sweep is 14-8 (.636), so it happens more often than not.

But What If This Rivalry Is One Sided?

McVay and Shanahan, former colleagues in Washington, took over as the coaches of these teams in 2017. Shanahan is 7-3 against McVay and has won six straight despite generally having lesser teams and quarterbacks than the Rams. The 49ers have already upset the Rams, the closest thing to a super team this year, twice.

In Week 10 in mid-November, the 49ers were an aimless 3-5 team, but everything changed that night in a 31-10 upset. The offense only had two legitimate possessions in the first half, but they strung together 29 plays for 184 yards and two touchdowns on them. Matthew Stafford had a drop by Tyler Higbee that turned into a tipped pick-six to put the Rams in a big hole they never climbed out of. Deebo Samuel showed off his YAC ability on a 40-yard touchdown catch on a fourth down, but that was also the night where he started being used as a runner again. Samuel had six carries for 22 yards in Weeks 1-9 combined but had five runs for 36 yards and a touchdown against the Rams. He has continued to be that dual-threat for the team and iced their game-winning drive in Green Bay last week with a 9-yard run on third-and-7. He is an incredible weapon and hopefully he’ll be healthy after hobbling off the field Saturday night.

When these teams met again in Week 18 in Los Angeles, the crowd was very pro-49ers. The game was pro-Rams for a half though as the Rams led 17-0. But Jimmy Garoppolo led a key drive in the last 38 seconds to get a field goal on the board. There was that annoying stat going around for years that McVay was 45-0 when leading at halftime. It’s annoying because it implies that he’s never lost a game when leading in the second half. He has. Multiple times. This game would be the most stunning loss since the 49ers had to overcome some long odds.

Even after quickly tying the game, things stalled out and Garoppolo was intercepted in the red zone by Jalen Ramsey with half a quarter left. Cooper Kupp took over for the Rams and put them up 24-17. The 49ers went three-and-out with Garoppolo taking a sack that brought up fourth-and-18 at the two-minute warning. That was no man’s land, but Shanahan made the ultimately wise decision to punt the ball back and use his three timeouts. I still think most coaches punt there, but John Harbaugh and Brandon Staley likely go for it. They also likely fail, fall behind by 10 points, and the game is over.

But McVay did the 49ers a favor by sticking with three straight runs, including a cowardly run on third-and-7. Was this not the situation you brought Stafford in for? Wasn’t protecting Jared Goff from throwing a pick the excuse for past years of conservative play calls from McVay? The 49ers got the ball back at their own 12 with 1:27 left, but Garoppolo again got the job done with an 88-yard touchdown drive, one of the best all year in that situation.

In overtime, the 49ers settled for a field goal before Stafford forced a deep ball on first down for a game-ending interception. The 49ers would have been replaced by the Saints for the playoffs had they not come back to win this game.

Stafford was nearly unstoppable in this game until the pass rush got after him. The 49ers sacked him five times and pressured him 14 times for a pressure rate of 37.8%, easily the worst pass protection game of the season for the Rams.

That comeback paved the way for this rematch, but Shanahan has beaten McVay in a variety of ways the last three seasons. He’s come back on him a couple weeks ago, he’s shut down his offense in 20-7 (2019) and 31-10 wins, he won a 34-31 shootout in 2020, and he’s even had Nick Mullens lead a two-minute drill and game-winning drive for a field goal last season.

We see it all the time in sports where one team has another’s number, but if you’re ever going to slay that dragon, this is the stage to do it for the Rams. Peyton Manning’s Colts once had to get over the New England hump by coming back to beat them in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. However, that’s not a good comparison for these Rams, because the Colts already beat the Patriots earlier that season and they kicked their ass in New England the previous season.

You also couldn’t really bring up Steve Young getting “the monkey off his back” against Dallas in the 1994 NFC Championship Game, a revenge win after the Cowboys knocked the 49ers out the previous two seasons. But even that season in Week 11, the 49ers notched a win over Dallas. This is six losses in a row the Rams must overcome, but it’s not like Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr., the big additions this year, were on the team for all six games.

Still, it’s one handsome man on the other side who may be the x-factor in this game.

Jimmy Garoppolo: We Are Going to Start a Dialogue

Honestly, I love the way Jimmy Garoppolo breaks people’s minds.

Under any normal circumstances, would we be questioning if a quarterback who completes 67.7% of his passes with 8.36 yards per attempt and a 98.9 passer rating is helping his team win games?

Among quarterbacks with at least 1,400 career attempts, Garoppolo ranks second in completion percentage, second in yards per attempt, and fifth in passer rating. With those numbers, it should come as no surprise that Garoppolo is 37-15 (.712) as a starter in the NFL. He is one win away from being able to say that he’s taken his team to the Super Bowl in both seasons where he started more than six games, the modern equivalent of Kurt Warner’s strange career arc.

And yet, people still pass him off as the answer to what if Jared Goff was hot? It’s always Shanahan’s scheme that gets the credit. While it does create big plays with two of the best YAC players in the world (Samuel and George Kittle), someone is going to have to explain what happens to Shanahan’s wonderful scheme and those talented players when Garoppolo is not available, which happens often as he’s hurt a lot. He’s even ailing right now with a finger injury that seemed to spur general manager John Lynch to almost end his tenure by “accidentally” liking a negative tweet at Christmas Eve mass.

But Garoppolo returned for this playoff run. Garoppolo just finished his 50th start for Shanahan and has a 35-15 (.700) record. With any other quarterback, Shanahan is 8-28 (.222) as San Francisco’s head coach. That’s a Peyton Manning in Indy type of split. That’s not supposed to happen, especially to a “genius” coach.

But again, Garoppolo doesn’t get any credit for this. If it’s not Shanahan’s scheme, it’s credit to Nick Bosa and the defense, even though Garoppolo won a 48-46 game in New Orleans in 2019, which is why the 49ers had the No. 1 seed that year.

Yet, somehow “Dropback Jimmy” is a thing as if this guy does nothing but live on play-action passes.

Garoppolo play-action vs. no play-action splits via Pro Football Reference:

  • 2019 play-action: 68.8% completions, 11.5 YPA, 6 TD, 3 INT, 113.4 PR
  • 2019 no play-action: 69.2% completions, 7.2 YPA, 21 TD, 10 INT, 98.0 PR
  • 2021 play-action: 71.0% completions, 10.2 YPA, 4 TD, 2 INT, 108.6 PR
  • 2021 no play-action: 67.5% completions, 8.2 YPA, 16 TD, 10 INT, 95.8 PR

You’ll never see anyone point out that Buffalo’s Josh Allen dropped from 9.2 YPA to 5.9 YPA without play-action this season, something he used to a great advantage (as he should).

If Garoppolo was able to throw a better deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders in Super Bowl LIV against the Chiefs, the perception around him would be much different now. Of course, that’s assuming the defense would have held up against Patrick Mahomes, which looks unlikely these days. The 49ers likely lost their ring when they couldn’t stop Mahomes from finding Tyreek Hill on a third-and-15 in that game.

But Super Bowl LIV is one of the few moments in Garoppolo’s brief career where he did not deliver in crunch time. For a guy as ridiculed as he is, he tends to deliver in fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive opportunities.

Garoppolo has the second-best record (11-10) among active quarterbacks behind only Brady. Included in those 10 losses is this year’s 20-17 loss in Tennessee, the AFC’s No. 1 seed, when Garoppolo led a game-tying touchdown drive before the Titans drove for the winning field goal. It was the second time in three years Garoppolo lost a 20-17 game on the road against the AFC’s top seed as it also happened in Baltimore in 2019. Another loss was Garoppolo’s go-ahead touchdown drive against the Packers in Week 3 before Aaron Rodgers found Davante Adams to set up a game-winning field goal.

Garoppolo has been better than he’s given credit for. There are things you don’t like, such as the lack of durability. The decision making can be spotty as some of his interceptions look really bad. He looked like he was dying to throw a pick-six in Green Bay last week with some of those late floaters to the sideline. So, the eye test isn’t there like it is for an Allen or Mahomes or a Hall of Fame talent.

But I’ll be damned if a quarterback playing in a smart coach’s YAC-based system with a great defense is something no one cared about two decades ago when a QB named Tom Brady was celebrated for doing it.

Too bad Jimmy didn’t stick around long enough for Brady to teach him how to defend Mahomes on third down…

But if there’s something to really not like about Garoppolo, it is his playoff games where he turns into a poor man’s Bob Griese. In 2019, the 49ers beat the Vikings with Garoppolo throwing 19 times for 131 yards. They crushed the Packers with Garoppolo completing 6-of-8 passes for 77 yards. That’s like one drive for his Super Bowl counterpart, Mahomes. In the big game, Garoppolo didn’t hit 200 yards passing until the two-minute warning. Again, he missed his shot at lore with that deep throw to Sanders. Since 2018, Garoppolo is 17-1 when he gains a first down on at least 40% of his pass attempts. Super Bowl LIV was the only loss in that time. It somehow remains Garoppolo’s best playoff game while being the only loss. Five of those 18 games were against the Rams, by the way.

This year in Dallas, Garoppolo was nothing special in building the lead the team almost blew thanks in part to a pick he threw. Then in Green Bay, he really capped off a sham of a 4-1 playoff start by leading his offense to six points, including a field goal drive that started at midfield after a long kick return by Samuel. Garoppolo completed two passes on the game-winning drive. Without that blocked punt return for a touchdown, I don’t see the 49ers winning that game.

But it’s another big opportunity this week for Garoppolo against a defense he usually does well against. Garoppolo is 6-0 against the Rams, completing 68.4% of his passes at 8.75 YPA. He led the clutch comeback in Week 18, and he might have to do something similar this time against a talented defense that has terrorized Kyler Murray and Brady this postseason. He may even have to do it shorthanded with Samuel, Kittle, and tackle Trent Williams limping off the field Saturday. All three will probably try to play, but none are likely to be at full strength.

We’ll see if this Shanahan coaching edge presents itself again. But if Playoff Jimmy shows up again? He better hope the Rams have some fumbles left in them, or that Brady taught him how to will them in the playoffs.

Stafford’s Time?

The NFC loves these flash in the pan teams where everything comes together for a Super Bowl run. Think 2015 Panthers, 2016 Falcons, 2017 Eagles, and the 2020 Buccaneers these Rams are modeling themselves after right down to getting to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. But these teams are a bit different in that they were just in the big game in 2018 and 2019, so someone is getting a second appearance in a short period of time.

But the odds favor the Rams after going all in with Stafford, Miller, and Beckham to go along with their established stars in Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey. While Ramsey did get beat for a long touchdown against Mike Evans on Sunday, the stars shined for the Rams in a real gut-check of a victory after blowing a 27-3 lead with four fumbles and a 47-yard field goal that came up short. A sub-50-yard kick coming up short in Florida. I still can’t believe that one, but that’s what happens when you face the LOAT.

Stafford is the first QB in NFL history to win a playoff game where his team had four turnovers where none of the giveaways were charged to him. They better hold onto the ball better this week, especially Cam Akers after his 2.0 yards per carry against Tampa’s stout defense. I see the 49ers allowing more runs this week, but the game is still going to come down to how well Stafford handles the pass rush from Bosa and company. They chewed up Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers this postseason. They chewed up Stafford and his line in Week 18, thought left tackle Andrew Whitworth could be back after missing Sunday’s game in Tampa Bay. That’s big.

How good has Stafford been this postseason? He joins 2003 Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to have back-to-back games with over 73% completions and 9.5 YPA. Hopefully he won’t implode in the title game like Manning did in New England that season. But Stafford has been doing great and the 49ers have a weakness in the secondary, which should be great news for Kupp, who had 118 and 122 yards receiving in the two meetings this year.

I’ve always compared Stafford to volume passers taken No. 1 in the draft like Drew Bledsoe and Eli Manning. If those guys can get to the Super Bowl, so can Stafford with a very good team around him. He’s unlikely to get a better chance than this one.

49ers: Road Warriors or End of the Road?

Before I make my prediction, I just want to touch on this grueling, historic schedule the 49ers are trying to get through to reach the Super Bowl. This is essentially their fourth-straight elimination game on the road when you consider they had to win in LA in Week 18 to make the playoffs. The five teams in NFL history that won three road playoff games before getting to the Super Bowl, including Tampa Bay last year, did not have to beat a playoff team on the road in the regular-season finale like the 49ers did. In fact, all five of those teams were at home to end the regular season, and only one played a playoff opponent in what was still a historic, helpful game.

  • 1985 Patriots: beat Bengals (7-9) at home before winning on the road against the Jets, Raiders, Dolphins, and losing Super Bowl vs. Bears.
  • 2005 Steelers: beat Lions (5-11) at home before winning on the road against the Bengals, Colts, Broncos, and winning Super Bowl vs. Seahawks.
  • 2007 Giants: lost to Patriots (16-0) at home in a game they didn’t need to win before winning on the road against the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Packers, and coming back to beat those undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl.
  • 2010 Packers: beat Bears (11-5) at home before winning on the road against the Eagles, Falcons, Bears, and winning Super Bowl vs. Steelers.
  • 2020 Buccaneers: beat Falcons (4-12) at home before winning on the road against Washington, Saints, Packers, and winning Super Bowl (in home stadium) vs. Chiefs.

The 2021 49ers already have tied the NFL record for most road wins against a playoff team in a season (including playoff games) with five wins. In addition to the last three weeks, they’ve won in Philadelphia early (weak) and late in the season in Cincinnati (good). The only other teams to have five such wins in a season are the 2010 Packers (won Super Bowl), 1992 Bills (lost Super Bowl), and the 1982 Jets despite a nine-game strike season (lost AFC Championship Game).

By my count, the only other team since the 1970 merger to beat a playoff team in the final game of the regular season and then play three road playoff games was Tennessee in 2019. The Titans got to 9-7 with a Week 17 win over Houston, which rested Deshaun Watson, before pulling off upsets in New England and Baltimore. The Titans were up 10 points in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game before losing 35-24.

To put it another way, the 2021 49ers can become the only team since at least 1978 to win four straight road games as an underdog of at least three points. Sure, most teams do not play four straight road games, let alone all against playoff teams, because of scheduling reasons, but this is why the 49ers are on the verge of history with this postseason run.

But of the 18 teams since the merger who were 2-0 on the road in the playoffs, they were 5-13 (.278) on the road in the Conference Championship Game.

The Prediction

McVay’s Rams have already burned me twice this season against the 49ers. I hate to pick them a third time, but I still think they’re the better team with the better quarterback and the defense has been really strong in the playoffs. Unless they want to be embarrassed again, I think the crowd will be more in favor of the home team this time, unlike Week 18. As long as Stafford avoids the turnovers like he has this postseason, the offense should be good. The 49ers will score more than six points this week, but it won’t be enough to get the road sweep and stop this loaded team from reaching the Super Bowl.

Final: Rams 27, 49ers 20

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