It has been an improbable ride for the San Francisco 49ers. With their victory on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field last Saturday night, the 49ers became just the seventh team in the 32-year history of the expanded NFL Playoffs format to reach the Conference Championship Game as the No. 6 seed.
The 49ers only qualified for their playoff spot by defeating the Los Angeles Rams in the final week of the regular season, and needed to overcome a 17-point first-half deficit and win the game in overtime just to get there.
Then they had to sweat out the Dallas Cowboys’ frantic and failed attempt to set up for a game-winning touchdown try in the Wild Card round before capitalizing on an almost-miraculous blocked-punt touchdown late in the Divisional Round game against the Green Bay Packers before Robbie Gould won it on a walk-off field goal.
So, to say the 49ers are living a charmed life right now might seem an understatement. And now, they must go back on the road, however short the distance, and face their NFC West friends, the Los Angeles Rams for a ticket back to their second Super Bowl in three years.
The Rams are listed as a 3½-point favorite on Sunday. But here is now the 49ers can continue their winning ways and return right back to SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl 56.
Deebo and Mitchell are going to take the ball out of Jimmy G’s hands
The turning point of the 49ers’ season came in Week 10. The 49ers were 3-5 and in danger of slipping out of the NFC Playoff race altogether. Coming to town for a Monday Night showdown were the Rams, sitting at 7-2 and concerned more with the Arizona Cardinals for the lead in the NFC West.
It was this night that the 49ers made a firm commitment to its running game, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo handing the ball off 44 times and Elijah Mitching turning 27 of those carries into 91 yards, as the 49ers chewed up 39 minutes of the clock in a dominant, 31-10 statement win.
But the biggest development of this game was wide receiver Deebo Samuel running the ball five times for 36 yards and a touchdown. This proved to be no fluke, as Samuel would remain a vital part of the running game the rest of the season.
In the Week 18 overtime win, Samuel not only ran the ball eight times for 45 yards and a touchdown, he threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings that tied the score at 17-17 after the 49ers had fallen behind 17-0.
Add to it Mitchell’s 85 yards on 21 carries and the 49ers had a 32-23 run-pass ratio, if you count Samuel’s touchdown pass as a running attempt.
If the 49ers can establish the run again and limit the opportunities for Garoppolo to make a potentially game-killing mistake, the 49ers will have a chance Sunday.
Matthew Stafford is due for a clunker
Stafford silenced a lot of his critics last Sunday, completing 28-of-38 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns in the 30-27 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional Round. But what was most impressive was picking the stunned Rams off the carpet after blowing a 27-3 lead and finding Cooper Kupp for a 44-yard completion that set up the walk-off field goal.
Stafford’s biggest knock has been his inability to deliver in big games. He checked off that box against the Buccaneers. But his two games this season against the 49ers tell the story of the bad Stafford that causes pundits to question his mettle.
In the 31-10 loss in Week 10, Stafford completed 26-of-41 passes for 241 yards and one touchdown, while throwing two interceptions. And while Stafford threw for three touchdowns in the Week 18 meeting, he also threw two more picks, including one in overtime to end the game.
If Joey Bosa and Fred Warner can repeat the type of performance they put on Aaron Rodgers last weekend, Stafford could be in for one of his patented choppy games, and that should be enough to let the 49ers hang around long enough to steal a victory.
If history holds, the third time will be the 49ers’ charm
Don’t let anyone tell you differently: Beating a team three times in the same season is not nearly as hard as it sounds. In the previous 22 times a team that had swept the season series played that team a third time in the NFL Playoffs, the “sweeping” team is 14-8. But since 1994, teams in this scenario are 10-4.
Only four previous times has a team that won the two regular-season meetings been the road team for the third meeting in the playoffs, as the 49ers will be on Sunday. In that scenario, the road team is 2-2. Most recently, the Tennessee Titans swept the Jacksonville Jaguars by winning the 1999 AFC Championship Game in Jacksonville.
And the 49ers could have a slight advantage, as their second win over the Rams came just three weeks ago, in SoFi Stadium.
“Getting off to a slow start and then coming back like we did, it took everything,” Garoppolo said after the victory on Jan. 9. “We say that a lot of weeks, but this one really did. I felt it after the game. I know a lot of guys in that locker room did. It was worth it, though. It was one of those games you won’t forget any time soon.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference