Remember when Von Miller came screaming around the left side of the line, beating Colton McKivitz. The latter had admirably served as Trent Williams’ replacement up to that point and sacked Jimmy Garopplo in the shade of his own endzone to throw cold water on what represented the best chance for a game-tying drive, considering the Niners had all three timeouts and the two-minute warning at their disposal to go the length of the field for a touchdown?
Do you remember the horrible, bottomless pit in your stomach, telling you that this game and season were all but over because a comeback would be next to impossible given the current circumstances? It turns out you were mathematically correct to feel that way!
According to NextGen Stats, after the 49ers were handed the ultimatum of attempting a 4th and 18 from their own 17 with failure ensuring, at least, a field goal attempt and most likely an insurmountable two-score lead OR having to punt, prevent the first down, then march down the field with no timeouts, they faced the lowest win probability (0.4%) of any team since 2016. Of course, that includes the Miami Miracle and the Patriots’ Super Bowl comeback for perspective.
How does a team facing odds that are utterly stacked against them manage to put their heads down and compete every play knowing they are on the brink of a loss and, more crucially, the outside looking in of the postseason? The 49ers will tell you its resiliency.
Within the game, it came down to the defense standing tall against the run on three straight plays, as Sean McVay decided to go ultra-conservative to make sure the Niners had burned all three timeouts instead of attempting to gain seven yards through the air on 3rd down.
What followed was easily the most impactful drive of Jimmy Garoppolo’s career. He ripped off two massive throws, including the one that set up the game-tying score to Deebo Samuel that most observers would note is completely outside his normal repertoire: Downfield and outside the numbers. The ball just barely got past the fingertips of a diving Jalen Ramsey, and Samuel did the rest, relying on his otherworldly awareness and run-after-catch ability to tack on another twenty yards.
An unexamined aspect of that play and the following snap was the offsides penalty called on Leonard Floyd, who didn’t exactly hustle across the line of scrimmage as the Niners hurried to spike the ball. Not only did the mental lapse add five yards, but it also reset the downs, so the offense would have at least four chances to score. It took two.
In a genius bit of play design, which is the only way to explain how Jauan Jennings could be that open, Aiyuk cleared the defense's top, while Deebo’s orbit motion drew two defenders to the flat. This left Jennings with not a man in a ten-yard radius of him before he easily scampered across the goal line and showed off his bowling skills in celebration.
Deebo Samuel's motion holds the flat defender and a safety (off the screen), which allows Jauan Jennings to get free in the middle of the field.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) January 11, 2022
Muddy pocket, Jimmy Garoppolo's best asset becomes even more valuable -- his quick release without stepping into it. Another dime. pic.twitter.com/pSCtmq0DBz
Obviously, with 26 seconds left on the clock, the dread of a possible Packers scenario hung over the momentum-shifting score. Could the Rams get in position for a game-ending kick with that much time left? Absolutely. But not if Arik Armstead, who dominated all day with his seven QB pressures, had anything to say about it. He brought down Matthew Stafford for one of his two and a half sacks, and the Rams simply let the clock run out.
Now, firmly in his bag, Shanahan drew up a masterful drive, draining seven minutes and fifteen seconds off the clock, as the Niners ran well, converted big third downs, and finally dinked in a lead-taking chip shot. Leaving the Rams with only two minutes and change to play certainly upped the difficulty for Los Angeles.
Then, in an ending you couldn’t possibly write, the beleaguered but improving rookie, Ambry Thomas, sealed the game with an interception on an underthrown Stafford ball. The celebration began immediately even as some Niners, like Fred Warner, waited to see the replay and that they’d truly vanquished their opponent before joining in on the action.
Add up all those moments, those individual contributions, and that’s how you manage to thumb your nose at the mathematicians of the world. It’s not something that most teams have the talent, conditioning, or mindset for, but this one does, in no small part because of the trials and tribulations they had leading up to this exact fork in the road.
It occurred to me that Sunday’s game was a microcosm of their entire season so far. They started off slowly but clawed their way back in it, facing a bump or two along the way, even scuttling chances to pull ahead, though, when the chips were down on the table, they played excellent team football to ensure victory. It’s a group that’s simply kept taking punches from the beginning, and they keep getting back up into the ring.
Kyle Shanahan commended his team in a similar fashion after the game:
“Our guys are really resilient… I think it’s real hard where you have a season where you lose four in a row. Most places, you lose four in a row, it’s tough to keep guys together — and just the character in the building and the players and everyone around, it makes it easy, you just focus on your job and keep fighting, and that’s what our guys have done all year.”
Every team wants to be described as “built for January,” but few rarely are for any number of reasons. However, in this case, the Niners very well might be the most poised team to make an unexpected run. They’ve gotten hot and healthy at the right time, can run the ball, have tremendous skill position players, and generate pressure on the quarterback in waves. Factor in that they look unfazed by a seventeen-point deficit with their future hanging in the balance as a check in the right column.
It speaks to the team-building and coaching that nobody panicked while staring down an unwanted and early ending to a tumultuous season that desperately needed the validation of a playoff berth. The leaders on both sides of the ball stepped up in major ways that rippled down to role players who, in turn, gave their best performances. That’s a team effort.
If the Niners can keep this kind of cool under pressure and continue to perform at that level, the sky surely feels like the limit.