The Rams’ fast start, forged against teams from the NFL’s worst division, had the ominous look of an illusion Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium.
In their first game against an NFC West opponent, the Rams’ offense stalled, the defense failed to produce pressure and untimely penalties sabotaged several opportunities.
That was more than enough for the San Francisco 49ers to take advantage of and show that they remain a force.
Jimmy Garoppolo passed for three touchdowns as the defending division-champion 49ers defeated the Rams 24-16.
After beating up on the NFC East, the Rams got a reality check as their record dropped to 4-2.
“Just too many things that we’re not accustomed to doing,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, adding, “We had a lot of our players that we count on that didn’t come through in some situations that they typically do.”
Quarterback Jared Goff struggled from the outset, missing receivers nearly the entire game. An offense that was averaging nearly 140 yards rushing produced only 113 against the 49ers (3-3), who bounced back after getting routed by the Miami Dolphins.
“Clearly wasn’t at my best,” said Goff, who completed 19 of 38 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception. “Just some uncharacteristic stuff — missing some guys open there early. Something that I’ve never done in my life.”
In last week’s victory at Washington, the Rams amassed eight sacks. On Sunday they did not sack Garoppolo, and hit him only three times.
Garoppolo showed no ill effects of a high-ankle sprain that sidelined him earlier this season. He was 22 for 33 for 268 yards and tossed touchdown passes to tight end George Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald said he would rather have lost every other game and won the division game.
“That means a lot more, so we just got to do better,” he said. “That’s not the way we play. That’s not the way we’re coached to play.”
It doesn’t get any easier for the Rams. With a “Monday Night Football” game against the Chicago Bears (5-1) next week and a trip to play the Dolphins (3-3) before an off week, the Rams will play five division games in the second half of the year.
One of those will be against the 49ers, who figure to only get stronger when cornerback Richard Sherman, defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and others return from injuries.
“We’re in the best division in football and there’s a reason for it,” Goff said. “These guys are good. Arizona’s good. Seattle’s obviously undefeated. We’re a great team. So every time you play in this division it’s going to be a tough game.”
The Rams went into Sunday’s game with wins over Dallas, Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Washington, teams with a combined record of 5-17-1. But defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said the Rams were not complacent.
“They just kept us on our toes,” he said of the 49ers.
The Rams trailed 21-6 at halftime after Garoppolo passed for three touchdowns and the 49ers outgained the Rams, 291 yards to 102. Samuel Sloman’s career-best 42-yard field goal cut the deficit to 12.
The Rams got the ball midway through the third quarter and gave it to running back Darrell Henderson seven times while driving to the 49ers’ two. But on third down, Goff’s pass to receiver Cooper Kupp fell incomplete. On fourth down, the Rams passed again, and cornerback Jason Verrett intercepted it in the end zone.
The 49ers added a field goal before Goff connected with receiver Josh Reynolds for a 40-yard touchdown with 3:24 left.
But when Samuel took a shovel pass and used second effort to pick up a first down with about a minute left, the Rams’ fate was sealed.
Andrew Whitworth said the Rams would learn from their mistakes.
“That’s why there’s 16 games and not six,” the offensive lineman said. “So we get the opportunity for the next 10 weeks to go show who we are.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.