What we learned in 49ers' regular-season finale loss to Rams

What we learned in 49ers' regular-season finale loss to Rams originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SANTA CLARA — Two NFC playoff teams got together on the final Sunday of the 2023 regular season at Levi’s Stadium for a game that had a certain preseason feel to it, and the 49ers saw their 12-game winning streak against NFC West opponents come to an end with a 21-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

The 49ers (12-5) also had their nine-game regular-season winning streak against their neighbors to the south snapped with the loss.

Although the Rams’ playoff spot still was uncertain entering the game, coach Sean McVay opted to rest some of his top players without much concern whether they would enter the postseason next week as the NFC's No. 6 or No. 7 seed.

The 49ers would have wanted to sit out all of their top players with the No. 1 seed clinched, but because of injuries and roster limitations, coach Kyle Shanahan opted to have many of the team’s starters suit up and work up a sweat before calling on the backups.

Here are three takeaways from the 49ers’ Week 18 game:

Looking ahead to the postseason

The only real goal for the 49ers on Sunday was to best set themselves up for the playoffs in two weeks.

Although seven of the team’s nine Pro Bowl players suited up for the game, Shanahan wanted to remove them from the game at the earliest possible convenience.

Both teams stuck with basic game plans on defense and without many shifts and motions on offense. After all, there is the chance that these teams could meet in two weeks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

One area of concern to emerge from the game was a sideways turn for rookie kicker Jake Moody, who missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt and an extra point. It was Moody’s first missed PAT this season after converting 60 consecutive.

The 49ers head into the postseason with reason for concerns surrounding their rookie kicker.

Also, the 49ers came out of the game with one injury concern: Defensive end Clelin Ferrell made his 17th start of the season, but he sustained a knee injury on the opening drive, leaving his status for the postseason uncertain.

Pro Bowl quarterback Brock Purdy did not even suit up as the team’s emergency No. 3. He showed up 4 1/2 hours before kickoff to get in an early morning workout.

And the NFL’s rushing leader, Christian McCaffrey, was ruled out due to a mild calf strain, though he said he could have and would have played Sunday if the game meant anything. But the 49ers already had the No. 1 seed wrapped up, so he had no reason to play.

Tight end George Kittle and linebacker Dre Greenlaw were not among the team’s seven inactive players, but both were ruled out for the game even before the opening kickoff. Kittle had back spasms and Greenlaw was held out due to Achilles tendinitis, the team announced.

Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams played the first series of the game, but after the 49ers’ 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, he called it a day.

Jaylon Moore replaced Williams at left tackle at the start of the 49ers’ second series of the game.

Darnold gets first start with 49ers

Quarterback Sam Darnold made the 56th start of his six-year NFL career, and his first as a member of the 49ers.

On the day, he completed 16 of 26 pass attempts for 189 yards with one touchdown pass and no interceptions. Darnold’s 5-yard touchdown pass to rookie Ronnie Bell gave the 49ers a 20-7 lead at halftime.

He also rushed for a touchdown on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.

Darnold looked solid in his first extended action running Shanahan’s offense. It was unclear when Darnold signed with the 49ers in March whether Brock Purdy would be available for the start of the regular season after undergoing elbow surgery.

Darnold beat out Trey Lance for the backup, prompting to trade of the former No. 3 overall draft pick to the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Purdy never gave Darnold an opening to play, as the second-year pro started the first 16 games of the season and played at an MVP level for most of the season. Purdy threw for a franchise-record 4,280 yards with 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His 113.0 passer rating was the top single-season mark in 49ers history.

As part of the incentive-laden contract Darnold signed, he was to receive a $300,000 bonus for any game in which he appeared in 25 percent or more of the team’s offensive snaps in a 49ers victory.

An opportunity to shine

First-year safety Tayler Hawkins, who spent the past two seasons on the 49ers’ practice squad, was called up on Saturday to make his NFL debut. He came up with his first career interception in the second quarter when Carson Wentz’s pass deflected off the hands of Rams wide receiver Tutu Atwell.

Hawkins was needed due to injuries to starting safeties Tashaun Gipson and Ji’Ayir Brown. Veteran Logan Ryan got the start alongside Hawkins.

The 49ers lost All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga earlier this season due to a torn ACL, though he is expected to be ready for the opening of training camp in the summer of 2024.

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks raved about Hawkins during training camp, but the safety spent a good portion of the season on injured reserve with a hand injury. The 49ers re-signed him to the practice squad on Oct. 24.

He originally signed with the 49ers in the spring of 2022 as an undrafted rookie after appearing in 46 games over four seasons at San Diego State.

Near the end of the first half, Hawkins delivered a hard legal hit on Rams tight end Brycen Hopkins on a third-down incomplete pass.

Defensive end Robert Beal, a fifth-round pick from Georgia, got his most playing time of his rookie season. After seeing action in only three previous games and 15 defensive snaps, Beal picked up his first career sack.

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