Keeping that in mind, the majority second-team Los Angeles Rams used a strong second half to defeat the 49ers, handing San Francisco a 21-20 loss to close the 2023 regular season. Sam Darnold had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game, building a 49ers lead in the first half before everything fell apart in the second half, giving the Rams the win.
For the final time for the regular season, here are the winners and losers from Sunday’s loss:
Winner: Long first-half drives
The offense ran as efficiently as they could have hoped for a game that meant nothing to San Francisco.
The 49ers scored all 20 points in the first half, with Sam Darnold leading touchdown-scoring drives that went for 75, 75, and 90 yards, giving San Francisco a 20-7 lead at the half. San Francisco dominated the pace of the game, running 22 more first-half plays and winning the time of possession battle by 13 minutes.
Sam Darnold completed his first six passes of the game while finishing the first half completing 14-of-19 passes for 168 yards with a pair of touchdowns - one passing, one rushing - while executing the two-minute drill to near perfections on a 9-play, 90-yard drive ending in a Ronnie Bell touchdown. The run game was working behind a combined 16 carries for 75 yards between Elijah Mitchell and Jordan Mason.
Even without Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey, and George Kittle (and without Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel after the first quarter), the 49ers offense looked like it was running as usual. It didn’t even have to keep up the same pace in the second half to hold onto its lead, just something that resembled it…
Loser: Short second-half drives
… The offense in the second half looked nothing like it did in the first half.
After three scoring drives of more than 75 yards in the first half, the 49ers’ offense managed just 26 total yards off offense for zero points, and zero plays ran in Los Angeles territory. The longest drive of the second half for the 49ers’ offense was the final drive, which managed 18 yards but ended on a Darnold fumble recovered by the Rams.
After throwing just five incomplete passes in the first half, Darnold attempted only seven second-half passes, completing only two for 21 yards. With the limited plays, the running game saw only six second-half rush attempts, gaining just 19 yards during the back half. Mitchell and Mason had four of those touches, with Mason and Darnold sharing the longest runs of the second half at five yards on consecutive plays late in the third quarter.
Even after dominating the time of possession in the first half, the game ended with the Rams running four more plays and holding onto the ball for two minutes longer, a stark difference from the first 30 minutes of the game. The 49ers offense couldn’t stay on the field, and the defense couldn’t hold, resulting in the San Francisco loss.
Winner: Career firsts
While playing backups for most of the game creates situations like two completely different offenses on both sides of the half, it also creates some pretty cool moments.
Safety Tayler Hawkins played zero snaps this season entering Sunday but used his opportunity on Sunday to be in the right spot at the right time. After the 49ers scored their second touchdown to go up 14-7, Carson Wentz and the Rams’ offense tried to open their drive with a quick pass to Tutu Atwell.
Javon Hargrave got a hand on the ball at the line of scrimmage and just changed the trajectory of the ball to bounce off the hands of Atwell into the air. Hawkins made a play on the ball and pulled in his first career interception in the first game of his career.
Later in the game, fifth-round pick Robert Beal made his first impactful play of his rookie campaign. Beal has only seen 15 snaps on defense this season after being on injured reserve until the end of December but saw plenty of playing time on Sunday.
He used that playing time to collect the first sack of his career in the third quarter, sacking Wentz to force a third-and-17 that the Rams offense would convert en route to the Rams’ second score of the game.
Loser: K Jake Moody
I tried my best to separate what happened on Sunday and not use it to project what the postseason could look like for San Francisco, but Moody made it impossible.
Since the Minnesota game, Moody had converted all 10 of his field goal attempts and didn’t have a miss on attempts from 40 yards or less. That was at least before Sunday when Moody missed a 38-yard attempt in the second quarter that would have extended the San Francisco lead to two scores.
Maybe things would have felt better after the game on Sunday had that been the only miss for the kicker, but he couldn’t shake it off. Moody proved earlier this season his misses come in bunches, with all three of his misses entering Sunday in those consecutive losses to Cleveland and the Vikings, and it was no different against the Rams. After Darnold hit Bell for the second-quarter touchdown, Moody missed the PAT, his first missed PAT of the season.
All four of Moody’s misses in 2023 came in losses and one-possession losses, with his misses being the difference in both the loss to the Browns and the loss on Sunday. While the 49ers’ offense scores plenty of touchdowns, it might not be a concern in the playoffs. Still, it’s a situation to monitor as the regular season turns into the postseason.
Loser: The receiving corps
Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel got their reps out of the way in the first quarter, and they both looked to be in postseason form, combining for 46 yards on five catches. Outside of those two, the receivers had issues.
Chris Conley, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Ronnie Bell combined for just seven receptions for 96 yards, with a Conley 48-yard reception being a bulk of the yardage. Those seven receptions came on 15 targets for the trio, with drops being the issue. Bell had a drop on a third down in the first half right before Moody’s miss. McCloud and Conley had drops in the fourth quarter, with the 49ers trailing.
McCloud’s drop came on the first play of the 49ers’ second-to-last drive, bobbling a deep shot from Darnold before Russ Yeast would make a hit to ensure the incomplete pass on a play that would have gained at least 30 yards. Then, on the 49ers’ final drive, Darnold hit Conley along the sideline for what would have been a 20-yard gain, again before Yeast would come in and break up the play. Three plays later, Darnold would fumble, and the game would be over.
The saving grace is it’s a receiving corps that likely won’t see many snaps in the postseason, but a day to forget for the second unit at the position.
The loss didn’t hurt the 2023 49ers with the No. 1 clinched entering Sunday, but San Francisco had a couple of streaks come to an end with the Rams’ win.
With the Rams win on Sunday, the 49ers’ nine-game regular season winning streak ended. The last time Los Angeles beat San Francisco in the regular was in December 2018, when the 13-3 (and Super Bowl-bound) Rams beat Nick Mullens and the 4-12 49ers, still a few months away from drafting Nick Bosa. Since then, the rivalry has been all 49ers (don’t ask about the playoff game), but the Rams backups were able to defeat the backups of the 49ers to end the skid.
The loss also marked San Francisco’s first divisional regular season since its December 2021 loss in Seattle, back when the Seahawks’ offense still featured Russell Wilson. The 49ers have won 12 consecutive division games since then, including the franchise’s first 6-0 record against the NFC West since the division realignment in 2002. The 49ers had a chance for consecutive perfect seasons against the West before Los Angeles spoiled it on Sunday.