A signature win for the St Louis Rams turned into a prime-time display of catastrophic failures that still plague this franchise, as well as the tantalizing possibilities inherent in this young and spiritied team. The result was a 24-24 tie that leaves Rams nation stunned, and gives the 49ers fans a huge sigh of relief.
The Rams had this game won - and then taken away - so many times that we have to count them to be sure.
1) They had it won early, jumping out to a 14-0 advantage on touchdowns by Brian Quick and Steven Jackson, and then knocking Alex Smith out of the game after he led a scoring drive.
2) They had it won even after the Niners closed the gap under Colin Kaepernick in the second half, ready to receive the kickoff up 17-14 with eight minutes to go.
3) They had it won even after the Niners recovered an awful fumble by Isaiah Pead on that kickoff and scored a murderously quick touchdown, as Sam Bradford led his team down the field on a signature comeback drive, scoring a go-ahead touchdown and leaving just over a minute on the clock.
4) They had it won even after their defense couldn't hold onto that lead, utterly failing to set the edge on defense and allowing Kaepernick to make plays with his feet again and again to send the game into overtime.
5) They had it won on the first play of overtime, as Sam Bradford uncorked a gorgeous downfield pass to Danny Amendola, who somehow got behind his man and made a brilliant catch and run to give the Rams a first and goal inside the five yard line ... until the referees took it away.
6) They had it won even after having to punt the ball away and watching their defense continue to have no idea how to play against a mobile quarterback, as David Akers honked an easy field goal.
7) They had it won as rookie sensation Greg Zuelein drove a 53-yard coffin nail straight through the uprights at Candlestick, until the referees noticed the play clock standing at zero.
8) They had it ... maybe ... until the referees made one final intrusion into the game by failing to get the ball spotted as time ticked ominously away. A final ten seconds that may or may not have made the ultimate difference in our last gasp.
In one sense, this game was an astounding victory of spirit for a Rams team that showed up with fight on their minds and refused to back down against the bullies of the division. In another very real sense, this was a horrendous opportunity lost, an opportunity - multiple opportunities, as stated above - to get a statement win to start the second half.
A game the Rams won and lost... could only end in a tie. A tie that means essentially nothing in the standings - not a loss, not a win, just a void. A void that utterly fails to capture the torture of conflicting emotions that comes out of this game. Every judgement of every component of this game comes with nearly equal parts good and bad...
Heroes and Goats
Sam Bradford - Mostly a Hero. played an incredible game throughout, but has to take some of the blame for multiple pre-snap penalties, including the crucially bad lineup position by Austin Pettis that negated the game-deciding pass to Amendola in OT. He is the field general, and if he needs to audible the receiver into position, he needs to do that. He could also have showed a but more urgency late, though I commend him for keeping a cool head throughout.
Steven Jackson - 100% Hero. If the Rams had a high price tag on Jackson at the trade deadline, Jackson's performance today fully justified the price ... and the decision to shut down trade talks all together. He not only ran with abandon, he made huge plays in all facets of the game. He ran for tough yards, made a fantastic catch and run late in the game that involved bulling through Patrick Willis, and delivered a hell of a chip block that freed up Bradford to throw the go-ahead touchdown.
Danny Amendola - 100% Hero. It would be hard to do more than Danny did to attempt to deliver a win to this team.
Rams receivers not named Danny Amendola - mostly goats. This isn't entirely fair, as the Rams' receivers made multiple big plays. Brian Quick and Austin Pettis caught touchdowns. There was only one blatant drop that I can remember (by Brandon Gibson on third down, of course), and the group responded strongly to being short-manned, as Chris Givens somehow got himself benched before the game. But they also made critical errors, including the fateful illegal formation error, and mental issues with route-running and failures to get out of bounds at critical times.
Rams' D-line - mostly goats. Again we have to couch our criticism, as there were plays made by Michael Brockers (1.5 sacks, unofficially), Jermelle Cudjo, Chris Long and Robert Quinn. But the sight of our DEs being led upfield by the nose on play after play, opening up enormous holes for Kaepernick to scamper through was positively sickening. A failure to set the edge devastated us and let the 49ers back into a game they frankly had no business being in.
Rams' back seven - goats. Janoris Jenkins also got himself benched before the game, and in his absence the dwindling playmaking ability of this group has completely dissipated. Teams are simply identifying Cortland Finnegan and throwing the other way - often targeting Craig Dahl, the standout goat among goats in this group.
Johnny Hekker - mostly a hero. Hekker had two huge blunders in this game: one a 13-yard punt that shanked off his foot, and the other (much more damaging) a failure to get the ball snapped on Greg Zuerlein's potential game-winning 53-yard field goal. But he also had two of the ballsiest plays you'll ever see a punter make, converting a fake punt out of his own end zone on a pure read-and-react play and converting another first down out of the punt formation on a designed play to keep Bradford's signature comeback drive alive.
The rest of the Rams' special teams - mostly goats. Isaiah Pead gifted the 49ers with their go-ahead points with an awful fumble on a 4th-quarter kickoff return, but even he redeemed himself (partially) with steady work afterwards, including a ten-yard gain on a screen pass to set up a would-be game-ending kick. The trust level in Pead is running on empty though. Zuerlein let the craziness of the game's end get in his head on the final kick, a 58-yarder that we know he has the range for.
Coaching Staff - heroes and goats alike. I hate to say it, because the Rams clearly had a strong gameplan on offense, showing an ability and willingness to run the ball down the 49ers' throats in a way that no other opponent has, and using that to activate a potent play-action passing game. You also have to credit the coaching staff for their job in both fake punt makes. But the team sleepwalked through the middle of the game (again), and on defense utterly failed to prevent the Niners from making their comeback. Kaepernick is a bit of an unknown commodity, it's true, but on principle the Rams need to be better prepared. And they absolutely must make better blitz decisions.
Bottom line, the Rams showed up ready to play, and refused to lose. But with a win in hand multiple times, they let it slip through their fingers. It feels like a win that feels like a loss that ends up feeling like a big confusing lump of regret balled in the pit of my stomach.