San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo 'could have tapped out,' instead 'stepped up'

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- In his alternately turbulent and successful time with the San Francisco 49ers, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has had bigger and better numbers than what he did in Week 18 against the Los Angeles Rams. He has played in more meaningful contests with higher stakes.

But given the circumstances surrounding what took place at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Garoppolo had never come face-to-face with a more important moment. It's no exaggeration to say any number of late-game pass attempts could easily have been Garoppolo's last with the Niners.

That Garoppolo was flinging the football with a badly injured right thumb in a road game his team absolutely had to win in order to qualify for the postseason with his hand-picked replacement ready to step in at a moment's notice ensured this was the kind of moment that would not only define a season but help dictate where Garoppolo's career goes from here.

All Garoppolo did was grit his teeth through the pain and deliver the kind of late-game magic that once had the Niners and their fans anointing him the face of the franchise. Led by Garoppolo and a lengthy list of strong supporting characters, a 17-0 deficit turned into a stirring 27-24 overtime victory to punch San Francisco's ticket to the playoffs.

"[He's] everything you want out of your starting quarterback to put yourself in a position to get in the playoffs no matter what he’s going through," defensive tackle Arik Armstead said. "He could have easily tapped out or made excuses but he didn’t do that. He stepped up and made plays and got the job done."

To be sure, Garoppolo's winning effort against the Rams wasn't without its share of hiccups. Bad Jimmy showed up a couple of times, including a poorly thrown interception deep in Los Angeles territory in the fourth quarter. What should have been, at minimum, a go-ahead field goal turned into a Rams touchdown.

Niners coach Kyle Shanahan's faith in Garoppolo never wavered. Instead of going for it on fourth-and-18 from San Francisco's 17 with less than two minutes to play, Shanahan punted it back to the Rams hoping the defense could get a quick stop and give Garoppolo and the offense another chance.

Sure enough, the 49ers got the ball back at their 12 with no timeouts and 1:27 to go. Anything less than a touchdown and the 49ers' season was over.

"He's a really good football player," tight end George Kittle said. "You have to be a good football player to come back from bad plays. ... He doesn’t let things snowball and he just flushes it and goes on to the next play."

Unfazed by the interception that took place six minutes earlier, Garoppolo threw a strike to receiver Brandon Aiyuk for 21 yards. Two plays later, Garoppolo fired his best and most challenging pass of the day, stepping away from pressure and ripping it to wide-open receiver Deebo Samuel with just enough velocity to sneak it past diving Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Samuel hauled it in, made a couple of defenders miss and raced for a 43-yard gain. It was the type of long throw many wondered if Garoppolo could make with his bad thumb.

Two plays after that, Garoppolo hit receiver Jauan Jennings for a 14-yard touchdown to send it to overtime. With the season on the line, the Niners went 88 yards on five plays in 1:01. He followed that by steering a deliberate 12-play drive that lasted 7:15 for what turned out to be the game-winning field goal in overtime.

"It was real tough, but to come back and lead us down there, to tie it up, send it to overtime," Shanahan said. "He was unbelievable.”

After the interception, Garoppolo completed 8 of 11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. For the game, he completed 23 of 32 for 316 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 87.5.

Garoppolo did it after a week in which he spent every day diligently trying to adjust for his injured thumb as calls for rookie Trey Lance to take over grew louder.

Garoppolo said he knew most of the week he'd be the starter, it was just a matter of pain tolerance to get through a full game. After it was over, Garoppolo said it felt "great."

"Honestly, with injuries like that, your body’s just learning and adapting the whole time," Garoppolo said. "So early on, it was pretty numb, so it felt all right and then just got better and better as it went. I think my arm just kind of learned how to adapt to it."

With a win in the biggest game of the season in his pocket, the fire alarm at SoFi Stadium went off in the middle of Garoppolo's postgame news conference. Garoppolo laughed and did his best to keep answering questions even as the sirens blared around him.

After all, he'd already pushed through far more difficult challenges undeterred.