As we approach the NFC Championship Game, the third matchup of the Niners and Rams this season, much has been made of their previous meetings, going three years back into the past when you consider San Francisco’s current six-game winning streak over LA. Is it randomness? Particular strategic edges? Or, as certain corners of the Internet would put it, does Kyle Shanahan simply live rent-free in Sean McVay’s head?
Quite honestly, when you look closely at those outcomes, like all things, it’s some mix of the three. The Rams could just have easily walked away with a win in Week 18 had they gotten a first down with less than two minutes on the clock. However, a combination of the Niners' stout run D and McVay’s insistence on running all three downs, including 3rd & 7, gave the offense one final chance.
The drive moved swiftly behind Deebo Samuel’s spectacular run-and-catch, which was completed mere inches over Jalen Ramsey’s outstretched fingertips. They took advantage of the good positioning to tie things up and secured the win in overtime on the now-iconic interception by Ambry Thomas on the Stafford-OBJ miscommunication.
See what I mean? McVay desperately wanted to burn the Niners three timeouts and went conservative in doing so, the Rams run game is no match for the 49ers stonewall front, and sometimes balls float perfectly into your star receiver’s hands, and other times they get broken up by the other team’s star cornerback.
Obviously, this idea of Shanahan’s ownership of McVay is compelling. However, in the context of this season, I see a larger narrative that encompasses the previous two clashes and will culminate with the third.
When I think of the Shanahan-McVay rivalry in 2021, I think of the 1988 action classic Die Hard. Just consider how John McClane describes himself to Han Gruber, “Just a fly in the ointment... The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.” That must almost certainly be how the Rams view these 49ers.
Even more specifically, there’s a moment early in Die Hard that, if the Niners were to win this Sunday, would perfectly encapsulate the Rams’ experience. McClane gets the drop on a terrorist but doesn’t shoot, only asking him to put his hands up. When another barges in, McClane kills him, but in the fracas ends up trapped under a table, the first man chasing him down from above.
Just as McClane runs out of the table to hide under, the terrorist reloads, uttering a sage piece of wisdom, “Next time you have the chance to kill someone… Don’t hesitate.” Taking the suggestion, our hero blasts the man and fights to live another day. It feels pretty clear to me who’s who in this scenario.
The Rams didn’t just have the chance to, literally, end the 49ers season the last time they played, but also, figuratively, way back in Week 10. The Niners were in free fall, having gone 1-5 after their first two wins, and had just gotten shellacked at home by the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals. Things looked bleak, and the team needed a jolt if they wanted any shot to make the playoffs.
In retrospect, who knows how the Niners’ season progresses if they go to three games under 500 with half the season left to play. Practically, they would’ve most likely missed the playoffs by a game if they’re lucky. Not playing Trey Lance looks like a massive missed opportunity, considering the team dedicated all of its resources to one more playoff push with Jimmy G. Things could’ve gotten ugly in a hurry.
But when all the chips were down on the table, the 49ers played what might be their most complete game of the season. Defensively, they harassed Stafford constantly, and Jimmie Ward intercepted him twice in the first quarter. The second added to the quarterback’s league-leading pick-six collection.
The Niners started things off with a 93 yard, 18-play drive that proved Shanahan had got his groove back, and to quote Garoppolo, “I don’t want to say it took their soul away, but it definitely did something.” Our own Kyle Posey did a fantastic breakdown of this that you can watch here.
To summarize, Elijah Mitchell ran wild, Kittle looked elite, and Deebo Samuel ran for/caught a touchdown on one of the best throws of Jimmy’s career. There might have been no more fitting way for this team to earn its first home victory in over a year.
As for the road trip to LA, the stadium famously transformed into Levi’s South, the repercussions of which are still being felt, and, as we covered above, the Niners took care of business. Now, they are back to where they started their string of three straight road upset wins in elimination games and looking to make it four.
This team had rolled with punch after punch all season long, managing to get up even when it seemed easier to stay down. In that way, the team has become hardened, resilient, and embraced a no-moment-too-big attitude, even when staring down some of the league’s biggest stars, kinda like cracking wise in the face of heavily-armed terrorists.
So, this weekend, as the Niners return to their second NFC Championship game in three years, they should be feeling as loose as can be, knowing that they’ve been in this exact situation twice already. Underdogs to their division rival hellbent on breaking a losing streak and finishing them for good, but knowing that when their brand of football clicks, they can beat anyone. That’s how you get a mental edge. That’s enough to make anyone scream, “Let’s go!” Or, as John McClane might say, “Yippee-ki-yay...”