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The Big Takeaway: 49ers passed gut-check time; Rams failed

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) is sacked by the 49ers.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) is sacked by 49ers defensive end Arden Key (98) and middle linebacker Fred Warner (54) in the second half Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams dominated in the first half but wilted for most of the second half and overtime on Sunday, their uneven performance on both sides of the ball resulting in a 27-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers before 74,447 at SoFi Stadium.

Here are seven takeaways from a loss that snapped a five-game winning streak and dropped the Rams to the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs:

Failed gut-check

The Rams, with a 24-17 lead, had the 49ers pinned at their own 12-yard line with 1 minute 27 seconds left in regulation, needing to prevent a team that was out of timeouts from scoring a touchdown to seal the win, and they couldn’t.

Does that sound like a Super Bowl-caliber defense? We think not.

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San Francisco needed only five plays — and one minute and one second — to storm downfield for a score, Jimmy Garoppolo connecting with Jauan Jennings on a 14-yard touchdown pass over the middle with 26 seconds left for a 24-24 tie.

The Rams lost to the 49ers in overtime, but still won the NFC West because the Cardinals lost to the Seahawks. The Rams will play host to Arizona in their playoff opener.

The key plays on the drive were a 21-yard pass over the middle to Brandon Aiyuk, who caught six passes for 107 yards in the game, and a 55-yard pass to Deebo Samuel that barely eluded the big right hand of diving Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who was a split-second late while trying to close on Samuel.

On the touchdown, two Rams defenders followed the dangerous Samuel into the back of the end zone, leaving Jennings wide open underneath.

“I don’t know,” Ramsey said, when asked what changed in the second half. “We weren’t aggressive enough, in my opinion, but I guess we’ve got to watch the film and figure that out.”

Ground to a halt

The Rams — despite the return of running back Cam Akers from rehabilitation of an Achilles tear — had virtually no success running the ball, accumulating 64 yards in 27 carries, yet they somehow stayed on the ground on a key third-and-seven play from their 43-yard line with 1:40 left in the fourth quarter.

The conservative play call was costly, Sony Michel gaining only two yards off left tackle to force a Johnny Hekker punt that gave the 49ers the possession they needed to tie the score.

Was there any discussion of throwing the ball on that third-down play?

“Not to my knowledge,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “I think we have a really good defense. We trust those guys. San Francisco did a nice job of driving down and scoring, no question. They made the plays. But we’re a team. We trust our team.

The Rams’ inability to beat the San Francisco 49ers shows why Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay don’t have what it takes to reach the Super Bowl.

“I wish we could have gotten the first down there and kneeled it out. As an offensive player, there’s no better play in football than taking the knee with a win, but we didn’t earn that opportunity, so had to go to overtime, and then what happened, happened.”

Akers, making his season debut after suffering his injury in July, got his feet wet but wasn’t a factor, rushing five times for three yards while catching three passes for 10 yards.

His Kupp runneth over

Sunday’s second-half collapse did nothing to diminish the season of Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, who caught seven passes for 118 yards and a touchdown to finish with an NFL-best 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Kupp became only the fourth player in the Super Bowl era (since 1970) to achieve a receiving “triple crown,” leading the league in all three categories, an elite club that includes Jerry Rice (1990), Sterling Sharpe (1992) and Steve Smith (2005).

Kupp fell 17 yards short of Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record of 1,964 yards, set for the Detroit Lions in 2012, but he surpassed Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and Rice to finish with the second-most yards in a single season.

Kupp caught a 46-yard pass to convert a third-and-nine play on the Rams’ game-opening field-goal drive and a 30-yard pass down the left sideline despite Jimmie Ward’s tight coverage to convert a third-and-six play on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

The latter drive ended with Kupp, on third and goal from the four-yard line, making an acrobatic, spinning catch between Ward and Emmanuel Moseley in the back left corner of the end zone with 2:29 left for a 24-17 Rams lead.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Rams’ 27-24 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium on Sunday — scoring and statistics.

“There were a handful of great plays, great individual efforts,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I thought we were going to be able to win the game, but we ultimately weren’t able to get it done.”

Higbee’s time to shine

It’s easy for Tyler Higbee to get overshadowed in a Rams receiving corps that includes Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr. and the speedy Van Jefferson, but it was the burly tight end who starred in the first half.

Higbee scored the Rams’ first touchdown, catching a two-yard play-action pass from Stafford over the middle on fourth and goal with 10:26 left in the second quarter for a 10-0 lead.

San Francisco went three and out on its next possession, and Brandon Powell’s 31-yard punt return gave the Rams a first down on the 49ers’ 19-yard line.

Three plays later, Higbee outjumped cornerback Ambry Thomas in the right corner of the end zone for a superb catch of Stafford’s 15-yard back-shoulder pass to give the Rams a 17-0 lead with 6:44 left in the first half.

Higbee caught six passes for 55 yards and finished the regular season with 61 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns.

Rams tight end Tyler Higbee hauls in a touchdown pass.
Rams tight end Tyler Higbee hauls in a pass against 49ers cornerback Ambry Thomas in the first half for his second touchdown of the game Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Too much Deebo

The Rams had no answer for 49ers star Samuel, the do-it-all receiver who caught four passes for 95 yards, rushed eight times for 45 yards and a touchdown, and threw a touchdown pass. .

Samuel, who lined up in the backfield as often as he did at receiver, took a handoff from Garoppolo, raced around the right side and beat Darious Williams to the pylon for a 16-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.

After running the ball on 10 straight plays on their next drive, Samuel took a handoff from Garoppolo, rolled to his right and lofted a wobbly pass to a wide-open Jennings, who juggled the ball before securing it in the back of the end zone for a 17-17 tie with 1:46 left in the third quarter.

Turning point

The Rams held possession almost twice as long as the 49ers (19:53-10:07) in the first half, they outgained them 149-83 and converted seven of 10 third-down plays. Stafford completed 15 of 16 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns — a quarterback rating of 146.1 — through two quarters.

But the momentum of the game shifted in the final 38 seconds of the first half, when San Francisco drove 61 yards in six plays, including passes of 19 and 26 yards to Aiyuk, for a Robbie Gould 42-yard field goal that cut the Rams’ lead to 17-3 as the clock expired.

The 49ers defense dominated the third quarter, forcing three-and-outs on both Rams possessions, giving the offense a chance to come back.

“We did a better job on third down in the first half, that was the biggest thing,” Stafford said. “We did a nice job of converting those in first half, and we didn’t in the second half. We can do better there.”

Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey (5) reaches out to intercept a deflected pass intended for 49ers tight end George Kittle (85).
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Help from a higher power

Ramsey, the two-time All-Pro cornerback, delivered the game’s most spectacular defensive play, tipping a Garoppolo pass near the goal line with his left hand, juggling the ball as he fell onto his back in the end zone and somehow hauling it in for an interception with 7:42 left in the fourth quarter.

Asked how he was able to make the play, Ramsey said, “God … it’s all God.”


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