Why Brandon Aiyuk is the 49ers’ Secret Weapon Against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game

The San Francisco 49ers are only two victories away from celebrating their first Super Bowl victory since Jan. 29, 1995. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers’ first-round pick in 2020, wasn’t born until March 17, 1998.

If Aiyuk wants to see the 49ers win a Super Bowl in his lifetime, he’ll need to have the game of his life in the 2021 NFC Championship Game. San Francisco’s hopes of a championship parade rest on the second-year receiver who is too young to have seen Joe Montana throw a touchdown.

No pressure, right?

Brandon Aiyuk quietly made impressive strides in his second NFL season

Although Aiyuk still hasn’t put up the receiving numbers of fellow 2020 draftmates Justin Jefferson or CeeDee Lamb, he’s nonetheless had a fine first two years in the NFL. The Arizona State product finished his second season with 56 catches, 826 yards, and five touchdowns; his yards per reception increased from 12.5 to 14.8, and he caught 66.7% of the balls thrown his way, up from 62.5% as a rookie.

Aiyuk’s sophomore highlights included a six-catch, 62-yard showing against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14, a game he ended with a 12-yard touchdown in overtime. He hauled in a season-high 107 catches in a Week 18 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. The second-year wideout contributed five catches for 66 yards in San Francisco’s 23-17 upset over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Wild Card Round.

49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo only targeted Aiyuk once in the NFC Divisional Round. Luckily for San Francisco, defensive lineman Jordan Willis and veteran kicker Robbie Gould ensured the five-time Super Bowl champions would live to fight another day.

Aiyuk is the 49ers’ secret weapon to defeating the Rams in the NFC Championship Game

San Francisco 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk in 2021.
Second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk represents the San Francisco 49ers’ best hopes of defeating the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC title game | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Social media users and NFL pundits spent the buildup to the NFC Championship Game suggesting the 49ers had won in spite of Garoppolo after his poor performance in the second round. ESPN’s Mina Kimes even suggested the quarterback was simply along for the ride, a comment that spurred a harsh response from former 49ers Pro Bowler Jeff Garcia.

Although Garoppolo has the most to prove on Sunday, Aiyuk is the 49ers’ secret weapon. Sean McVay’s Rams will likely do everything in their power to limit how often Garoppolo throws to star tight end George Kittle. The veteran quarterback must work Aiyuk into the passing game and take advantage of his electric speed; the second-year wideout reportedly topped out at 21.97 mph in his final year at Arizona State and has showcased his agility throughout his young career.

If the 49ers continue using Deebo Samuel as a hybrid running back/receiver, Aiyuk stands to possibly earn more targets. Although Aiyuk tallied nine catches for 133 yards in two games against the Rams this season, he didn’t catch a touchdown in either outing. The 49ers would be wise to change that approach and ensure he reaches the end zone at least once.

San Francisco needs far more than Aiyuk to take down the Rams

Even if Aiyuk has the game of his life at SoFi Stadium, it still might not be enough for the 49ers to win — and that’s in spite of him being the team’s secret weapon. What gives?

Well, what gives is Garoppolo and left tackle Trent Williams, who is still battling an ankle injury. The All-Pro offensive lineman is considered questionable after playing through the ailment in the NFC Divisional Round. Although running back Jeff Wilson Jr. is also dealing with an ankle problem, the team is expected to have Elijah Mitchell active and in the backfield this weekend.

And, as for Garoppolo, we’ve said enough on that front. If he trusts in Aiyuk and makes the second-year receiver a significant part of Sunday’s game plan, both could have an opportunity to pose for photos in their official “2021 NFC Champions” hats.

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