Donte Whitner with NBC Sports Bay Area. Donte Whitner with NBC Sports Bay Area.

Despite leading 17-7 going into the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49ers finished on the wrong end of a 20-17 final score. Donte Whitner, a former safety for the 49ers and current NBC Bay Area 49ers analyst, has identified what he felt was the biggest play in the game.

Leading 17-14 with 10 minutes remaining, San Francisco faced a fourth-and-1 from the Los Angeles 45. After the Rams unsuccessfully challenged the third down play (believing it was a fumble), 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan sent his offense onto the field. Only, no play was run. San Francisco tried to draw Los Angeles offsides. When that didn’t work, the 49ers took the delay of game penalty and punted.

Whitner (seen above in a Nov. 2020 NBC Sports Bay Area video) spoke of that sequence in an interview with KNBR on Thursday. He remembered speaking with his NBC Bay Area coworkers at that moment, feeling that’s where the game was lost.

“The fourth-and-2. I told everybody in the studio at NBC when it got to that fourth-and-2 and I’m like, ‘This is a major decision in the game.’ And he chose to punt the ball then, I felt like that was the game,” Whitner said. “If you go for it there and you get it, you probably come out of there with a win. So I think that that was the only coaching flub or the major one that I saw.”

It’s hard to dispute Whitner’s feelings.

The unsuccessful challenge on the third-down play was also the Rams’ final timeout. With a successful conversion, the 49ers could have taken a 10-point lead, milked a lot of time off of the clock, or both.

Of course, the two plays leading up to the fourth-down decision were arguably overly conservative, as well. On second-and-1, Elijah Mitchell was stuffed for a loss of one yard. On third down, the 49ers handed the ball off to fullback Kyle Juszczyk after sending Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams in motion. The diversion tactic was unsuccessful and Juszczyk was stuffed for no gain.

So, while the fourth-down decision was questionable, it’s also a situation San Francisco should never have been in.

The 49ers did have a chance to overcome that disappointing drive, but miscues from San Francisco’s safeties were also huge. On first down, an attempted bomb from Matthew Stafford fell short and into the arms of Jaquiski Tartt for an apparent interception. Only Tartt dropped the ball.

On the following play, a blown coverage led to Stafford finding a wide open Odell Beckham Jr. for 29 yards. Jimmie Ward, the 49ers’ other safety, then made matters worse. Rather than simply touching Beckham down, he dove at him. That drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.

The Rams ended up tying the game with a field goal. Then, after an ugly three-and-out from San Francisco, Los Angeles got the ball back and kicked what ended up being the game-winning field goal.

There is more than one play to look at. Still, Whitner isn’t wrong.

If the 49ers had gone for that first down and gotten it, it’s hard to imagine they lose. Even if they had missed, we can’t say that they would have lost. What we can say is that they punted and did lose. With the loss, San Francisco opened itself to a lot of second-guessing from Whitner and anyone else who watched the game.

[KNBR; photo via NBC Sports Bay Area]

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