SANTA CLARA – Upsetting the rival Rams on the “Monday Night Football” stage gave the 49ers a long-awaited celebration on their home field, over a year in the making.
Levi’s Stadium’s jumbo screens captured it all night, from fans chugging popcorn to the 49ers’ play-makers taking turns with a gaudy gold necklace on their bench.
The 31-10 triumph showed off the complementary, play-making squad so many were expecting this season. From the 49ers, that is.
But after losing 5 of 6, the forgotten 49ers were underdogs at Levi’s Stadium, where they hadn’t won since the Rams’ last visit in October 2020.
Then, bam, safety Jimmie Ward intercepted two passes, returning the latter for a tone-setting touchdown and 14-0 lead. Yes, the same Jimmie Ward who had two career interceptions in 85 previous games.
The 49ers’ offense, led by Jimmy Garoppolo and Deebo Samuel, shared the spotlight with third-down conversion and ample scoring drives.
Overall, the 49ers kicked their habits and avoided lame penalties, turnovers and injuries, other than an early exit by right tackle Jaylon Moore. As demanded by coach Kyle Shanahan, their “A” players played amazing.
That included their quarterback, Garoppolo, who iced the victory with a fourth-down, 40-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel, who was presented the newfound play-making necklace once he reached the 49ers’ bench. It was one of Garoppolo’s prettiest passes in his eventually-coming-to-an-end tenure.
The 49ers (4-5) can parlay this win into an inviting stretch of games: at Jacksonville (2-7), vs. Minnesota (4-5), at Seattle (3-6). They are a half-game out of the NFC’s No. 7 playoff seed.
“The best thing is, if we can build on that energy and take it up another level, we’re going to be a pretty scary team,” George Kittle said. “If we can run the ball like that (44 carries, 154 yards) and make plays like that and get the ball in the hands of playmakers and take advantage of opportunities, we’re going to have a shot against anybody.”
In losing a second straight game, the Rams (7-3) didn’t maximize their shiny new toys: Odell Beckham Jr.’s first target resulted in a Ward interception on the opening drive, and linebacker Von Miller later got pancaked by a Kittle block.
It was the 49ers’ fifth straight win over the Rams, and it opened in idyllic fashion, not only with Ward’s interception on a 51-yard bomb at the 49ers’ 7, but with his pick-six on the next series for a 14-0 lead.
Garoppolo flawlessly by converting his first 12 passes and engineering enough scoring drives to preserve his scoreless record (5-0) against the Rams.
His coup de grâce was one of his prettiest passes as a 49er: a fourth-and-6 dart over the middle that hit Samuel in stride, and then Samuel slipped a tackle for a 40-yard touchdown and 31-7 lead, with 11:07 remaining.
Garoppolo was 15-of-19 for 182 yards, with two touchdowns and a season-high 141.7 rating. Samuel had 97 receiving yards (five catches, one touchdown) and 36 rushing yards (five carries, one touchdown)
If the national-television audience tuned in to see Garoppolo benched in favor of rookie Trey Lance, that wasn’t happening, for a fourth straight game. Lance never put on his helmet as he observed from the sideline.
The Rams more-heralded quarterback, Matthew Stafford, struggled most of the night, with passes dropped not only by his receivers but also a few 49ers’ defenders.
Ward’s interceptions on the opening two series were stunning. The 49ers had only two interceptions and five takeaways through eight games, and Ward had only two career interceptions through 85 previous games.
Ward’s first interception came on a 51-yard bomb to Beckham, and the 49ers converted that takeaway into an 18-play, 11-minute march, culminating with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Garoppolo to Kittle.
“I don’t want to say it took their soul away but it definitely did something,” Garoppolo said.
Then came the Rams’ next possession, and it ended in Ward’s hands on a 27-yard interception return for the insurmountable 14-0 lead.
“It just happens like that sometimes,” Ward said of his pick-six. “Sitting there watching film and I see guys where the ball comes to them somehow and I have no clue how. It just works that way.”
That Stafford pass initially got juggled by tight end Tyler Higbee, who made amends on the next series with a 10-yard touchdown catch (75-play drive in 2 ½ minutes).
Rather than recoil in typical 2021 fashion, the 49ers answered with their own scoring drive, finished off by an 8-yard run from Samuel after a 21-yard, tackle-breaking reception by Brandon Aiyuk.
Grabbing that 21-7 halftime lead was vital not only for momentum but historical sake. The Rams were 43-0 when ahead at halftime under coach Sean McVay since 2017. They’re still 43-0 in that category.
Finishing with 44 carries surpassed the bold goal of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. Why did he aim for 40 carries?
“Just to get our minds that way,” Shanahan said. “I do say that sometimes, and I say 30. But I said 40 today because it entails the whole team. The defense has to play that way. The O has to play that way. special teams has to play that way. You have to be good on third downs. We have to get turnovers. It was just really cool the whole team played that way.”