Jaquiski Tartt dropped opportunity to send 49ers to Super Bowl

The fourth-quarter bomb hung in the air so long, and Jaquiski Tartt was so in position to catch it that it seemed like the San Francisco 49ers safety could have called for a fair catch before making a game-changing interception in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s NFC championship game against the Rams.

“I see it, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, he f— up, and we about to win this game,’” Tartt said of the Matthew Stafford pass that came his way with 10 minutes left to play. “I had my hands up. I had it…”

Until he didn’t.

A long, first-down pass intended for Rams receiver Van Jefferson went directly to Tartt. There was no player within several feet of the defensive back, but the ball hit Tartt’s hands at the San Francisco 35-yard line and dropped to the SoFi Stadium turf.

Instead of an interception that would have given the 49ers the ball and a chance to extend a three-point lead, the Rams remained in possession and drove deep enough into San Francisco territory for Matt Gay to kick a game-tying, 40-yard field goal.

The 49ers offense and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo then imploded on their final two possessions, and Gay kicked a 30-yard field goal with less than two minutes left to give the Rams a 20-17 victory and a berth in the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals .

“I don’t know how I dropped it,” Tartt said of his near pick.

“I didn’t drop a ball in practice all week. I caught everything that came my way. There ain’t too much you can do to practice a moment like that. The only time you get that moment is when you get it, and for me it was a moment of truth, and I didn’t step up.”

Stafford followed his near disastrous pass with a 29-yard strike down the left sideline to Odell Beckham Jr., and an unnecessary roughness penalty by Jimmie Ward tacked 15 yards on to the play.

Aaron Donald tackles 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, who throws in desperation.  The pass was intercepted to seal the Rams' win.

Aaron Donald tackles 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who throws in desperation. The pass was intercepted by Travin Howard to seal the Rams’ win.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

A 16-yard pass on a tunnel screen to Cooper Kupp on third and 10 put Gay in position for the field goal that made it 17-17 with 6 minutes 49 seconds left.

“Is it disappointing? Sure, I know he probably feels terrible,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said of Tartt. “It’s football. Stuff happens. The next play is a 30-yard gain with a 15-yard penalty. That’s quite the swing right there.”

About 30 minutes after the game, Tartt, a seventh-year pro out of Samford University, took to Twitter to say there are “no excuses,” and that he “deserves all the criticism” that comes his way.

“It’s tough, but it’s a moment that a lot of athletes I know dream of — tie ballgame, you can make that game-changing play,” Tartt said in the interview room. “For me, that’s something I was thinking about all week.

“I know I can make that play. The play came up, and I didn’t make it, and I know that it was a big play in the game, a big opportunity for me, and the team. As a player, I feel like I let my brothers down. That’s a play I should make in my sleep and I didn’t make it.”

Tartt wasn’t the only 49ers player to come up small in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo spent the first 53 minutes of Sunday’s game taking a sledgehammer to his reputation as a playoff underachiever and the last seven minutes pouring more gasoline onto the narrative.

Garoppolo was 4-1 as a playoff starter since 2019, but the 49ers seemed to win in spite of him, not because of him. He had a 63.0 quarterback rating and averaged 146 yards passing, with two touchdowns and five interceptions, in those games.

But Garoppolo was on point for 3½ quarters Sunday, completing 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns, including a short screen pass that Deebo Samuel turned into a 44-yard touchdown to make it 7-7 in the second quarter and a 16 -yard scoring strike to Kittle that gave San Francisco a 17-7 lead in the third.

Even after the Rams tied the score at 17, the 49ers had the ball at their 25-yard line with 6:49 left.

Garoppolo’s first-down pass was incomplete. A delay-of-game penalty made it second and 15. Garoppolo’s screen pass to Brandon Aiyuk was nearly intercepted by Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey. His third-down pass to Travis Benjamin was low and incomplete, and the 49ers punctuated.

San Francisco still had time after Gay’s field goal made it 20-17, starting at its own 25 with 1:46 left.

Garoppolo’s first-down pass was batted down by Rams lineman Greg Gaines. His second-down pass to Jauan Jennings lost two yards.

Under pressure on third and 12, Garoppolo, with Rams lineman Aaron Donald draped around his waist, flipped a desperation back-hand toss that went off JaMycal Hasty’s fingertips and into the arms of Rams linebacker Travin Howard for a game-sealing interception with 1: 09 left.

“Just some bad execution,” Garoppolo said of the final two drives, which very well could be the last two possessions of his 49ers career. “It just didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. There’s a million things [that went wrong]. I won’t get into all of them, but it was a tough way to end it.”


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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