How 49ers' big Week 18 Rams comeback altered many playoff fates

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How 49ers' comeback vs. Rams altered playoff fates of many originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Sixteen days ago, the thought of the 49ers being 60 minutes away from their second Super Bowl berth in three seasons was an idea that would have you fitted for a straight jacket.

But here we are.

Needing a win in Week 18 against the Los Angeles Rams to secure their spot in the playoffs, the 49ers fell into a quick 17-0 hole at SoFi Stadium. With the New Orleans Saints cruising against the Atlanta Falcons, it looked like a near-certainty that the 49ers' rally from 3-5 to postseason participant would come up short, and the NFC playoff bracket would look as such:

1. Green Bay Packers
2. Los Angeles Rams
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4. Dallas Cowboys
5. Arizona Cardinals
6. Philadelphia Eagles
7. New Orleans Saints

But the 49ers didn't flinch. They simply stopped digging. They cut the deficit to 14 at halftime and seven early in the third quarter. They pulled even with the Rams only to watch LA eek back out in front, taking a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter.

But Jimmy Garoppolo marched the 49ers 88 yards in five plays, tying the game with 14 seconds left on a 14-yard pass to Jauan Jennings. Robbie Gould won it in overtime, and things were never the same.

The 49ers, a team that presented matchup problems for all of the NFC contenders, had miraculously resuscitated their season, creeping into the playoffs and altering the fates of a number of the league's marquee teams and players.

Let's start with two teams directly impacted by the 49ers' miraculous comeback, which was aided by elite-level turtling by the Rams. But I'll get to that.

With the 49ers earning the No. 6 seed and handing the Rams their fifth loss in the process, the Cowboys went from an assumed rematch with the Cardinals to a date with a physical San Francisco team that presented obvious problems.

On the other side, the Cardinals, who had defeated the Cowboys two weeks earlier, had to head to Los Angeles to play the Rams.

You know what happened next, both in Big D and Southern California.

Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray no-showed, getting drubbed 34-11 by Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford. Another late-season collapse has made Kingsbury's long-term future in the desert uncertain, and has raised questions about Murray's ability to take the next step in his journey as an NFL superstar. The Cardinals started the season 7-0 but won just four more games after that.

As for the Cowboys, they were manhandled by the 49ers early on, and their furious rally fell short, ending on the infamous Dak Prescott QB draw that now has coach Mike McCarthy on the hot seat (deserved), people questioning Kellen Moore's viability as a head-coaching candidate (semi-deserved), and likely will see owner Jerry Jones do something rash in the coming weeks. That's what Jerry does.

Had the 49ers lost in Week 18, one of either the Cowboys or Cardinals would have advanced to the divisional round and had a playoff win to point to as evidence of positive upward trajectory. That cools seats and calms premature talk of legacy for young quarterbacks.

With the Cardinals or Cowboys advancing to the divisional round, things might look a lot different this Tuesday for the NFL's newest heel, Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers and the Packers had everything going for them. They were the No. 1 seed, had a loaded roster that was getting healthy at the right time and an MVP quarterback who had thrown 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his previous seven games. Immortal stuff.

They also had home-field advantage, hosting the divisional-round tilt with the 49ers in subzero temperatures at Lambeau Field.

The 49ers have been a foil for Rodgers his entire career, and this 49ers team, while not as talented as the 2019 group, was uniquely equipped to roll into Lambeau, brave the elements, harass Rodgers, and somehow, someway find a way to shock the Packers.

When Gould's game-winning 45-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, it not only gave Rodgers another black mark on a Hall of Fame ledger filled with playoff disappointments, but also sent the 38-year-old off into the cold Wisconsin night to ponder his uncertain NFL future much earlier than anticipated. The criticism of Rodgers' poor play vs. the 49ers is deserved. After the Packers went up 7-0 on the first drive of the game, Rodgers only mustered three more points and folded like a paper tiger when the Packers needed him to be great.

The 49ers might have been the one team in the NFC bracket that was built to beat Rodgers and the Packers in January, in those conditions. They have the physicality, the mental toughness, pass rush, and are unafraid of the artist formerly known as "The Bad Man." The Packers entered the playoffs as the Super Bowl favorites and the clear top team in the NFC. A second Super Bowl appearance seemed likely given the level Rodgers was playing at.

Sub in either the Cardinals or Cowboys -- two dome teams -- for the 49ers last Saturday, and the narrative around Rodgers likely is about his march back to the Super Bowl and whatever nonsense he spews on his podcast, not whether or not our final memory of him is another playoff failure.

RELATED: Jimmy G's playoff success is hard to decipher

That leads us to the Rams. Oh, the Rams.

After thumping the Cardinals and upsetting Tom Brady and the Bucs, the Rams return to SoFi to face their version of Michael Myers. An NFL boogeyman coached by Kyle Shanahan that McVay just can't seem to kill.

Shanahan now has won six in a row and is 7-3 against McVay since becoming the head coach of the 49ers. It hasn't mattered how many injuries the 49ers have, who the quarterback is or where the game is played.

With a 17-0 lead in Week 18, the Rams had a chance to snap their losing streak to the 49ers and to make sure the team that has haunted them wasn't a factor in their march to the Super Bowl.

The Rams' inability to get one first down late in the fourth quarter of that Week 18 game allowed the 49ers to get off the mat, and now must vanquish them in order for their season, one in which success is only defined by a title, to live on.

One first down. Ten yards on Jan. 9 in Southern California, and everything could have been different.

But the 49ers never say die. Jimmy Garoppolo, with his 49ers tenure winding down, has likely increased his offseason trade value and illustrated the value of relentless optimism and dynamic leadership.

The 49ers now are 60 minutes away from completing an improbable run from dead-and-buried to conference champions. They've wrecked dreams at Jerry's World and further tarnished the playoff reputation of an all-time great.

Given new life in Week 18, the 49ers have made the most of a playoff opportunity that once seemed unlikely and changed everything in the process.

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