February 23, 2024

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is heading back to Detroit.

The Rams’ 21-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium improved their record to 10-7 and clinched the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs.

The Rams will play the Detroit Lions — and former Rams quarterback Jared Goff — in a wild-card game at Ford Field.

It will be a homecoming for Stafford, who played 12 seasons for the Lions before he was traded to the Rams for Goff, two first-round draft picks and a third-round pick before the 2021 season.

Stafford did not play against the 49ers, but the Rams did not need him.

Carson Wentz, making his first start since the end of the 2022 season, passed for two touchdowns and ran for another, and Puka Nacua established NFL rookie records for catches and yards receiving.

The Rams, whom oddsmakers projected as a 6½-win team, won seven of their last eight games and are returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

The top-seeded 49ers finished 12-5 and will have a bye into the divisional round.

More than anything else, the game Sunday was played in a cloak of secrecy. Neither Rams coach Sean McVay nor 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan wanted to show anything that might be part of a game plan should the teams meet in the playoffs.

To that end, quarterback Stafford, receiver Cooper Kupp, running back Kyren Williams, defensive lineman Aaron Donald and linebacker Ernest Jones IV were inactive. Tight end Tyler Higbee and offensive lineman Joe Noteboom did not play because of injuries.

Shanahan officially ruled out quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Christian McCaffrey and limited snaps for other star players.

Wentz, an eighth-year pro auditioning for a starting opportunity next season, started in place of Stafford, Sam Darnold in place of Purdy.

Rams quarterback Carson Wentz (11) passes against the San Francisco 49ers.

Rams quarterback Carson Wentz (11) had 17 completions and 17 rushing attempts against the 49ers.

(Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

It was Wentz’s first start since the end of the 2022 season, when he played for the Washington Commanders.

Wentz completed 17 of 24 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. Darnold completed 16 of 26 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown.

The victory marked the first time McVay defeated mentor and nemesis Shanahan in the regular season since 2018.

In the 2021 playoffs, the Rams beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game to advance to Super Bowl LVI.

The only outcome truly at stake Sunday concerned whether Nacua would break the records.

Early in the third quarter, Nacua’s fourth catch increased his total to 105, breaking the record set by Miami’s Jaylen Waddle in 2021-22. On the next play, Nacua caught a six-yard pass to break the yards receiving record that was set by Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers in 1960.

Nacua, a fifth-round draft pick who played at Washington and Brigham Young, was voted to the Pro Bowl. He eclipsed 100 yards receiving in a game seven times, and finished the season with 105 catches for 1,486 yards.

The Rams trailed 20-7 at halftime after running back Elijah Mitchell ran for a touchdown and Darnold passed and rushed for touchdowns.

Late in the third quarter, the Rams trimmed the margin on Wentz’s eight-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tyler Johnson. Brett Maher missed the extra-point attempt, however.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) fumbles in front of Desjuan Johnson.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) fumbles in front of Desjuan Johnson. Rams teammate Byron Young recovered the ball.

(Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

It was another concerning miss by a kicker who began the season with the Rams but was released after seven games and replaced by rookie Lucas Havrisik. Last week, the Rams released the inconsistent Havrisik and re-signed Maher.

Wentz’s 12-yard touchdown run with 4:56 left pulled the Rams within a point, and his two-point conversion pass to Tutu Atwell gave the Rams a 21-20 lead.

The Rams were unable to run out the clock, giving Darnold and the 49ers one last chance with 55 seconds left. But the Rams recovered a Darnold fumble with 25 seconds left, however, to clinch the victory.

The 49ers took control early, Darnold directing a 12-play scoring drive that consumed more than seven minutes and ended with Mitchell’s short touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.

The Rams answered late in the first quarter when Wentz found Nacua for a touchdown that pulled the Rams even and enabled Nacua to tie the record for yards receiving.

The Rams did not come close to scoring the rest of the first half.

Darnold put the 49ers back in the lead with a sneak that ended another long scoring drive, and the 49ers increased the margin late in the second quarter on Darnold’s short touchdown pass to receiver Ronnie Bell.

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