At 4-4, the Rams are tied with Seattle for first place in the NFC West and have more wins than in their past two complete seasons combined. They haven’t been in first place this late in a season since 2003. The Rams rank as one of NFL’s biggest surprises this year, and they’ll face a 2-6 49ers team that has been surprisingly bad after being picked by many to win the West. Yet with a win this week, the 49ers can keep their playoff hopes alive in what is largely believed to be the league’s weakest division.
Keys for the Rams
• Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford has thrown 96 consecutive passes without an interception, a span that includes the past three games, and he should be able to do some damage against a suspect 49ers secondary. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements and rookie strong safety Taylor Mays are both overaggressive at times and susceptible to being burned for big plays. During that 96-pass streak without a pick, Bradford has completed 61.5 percent of his throws with a passer rating of 93.9.
• The Rams defense ranks No. 8 against the run, and it will face another big test this week against 49ers running back Frank Gore, who combines power, speed and quickness in one package. The Rams are allowing an average of only 97.8 rushing yards per game, and they’ve allowed only one running back, Oakland’s Darren McFadden, to crack 100 yards. The Rams need to stuff Gore and force the 49ers to pass.
Keys for the 49ers
• The spotlight in St. Louis has been on Bradford, the No. 1 pick in the draft, but stopping running back Steven Jackson is still job. No. 1 for the 49ers defense. Despite battling a groin injury and breaking a finger, Jackson has rushed for 676 yards. It will be up to linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, along with nosetackle Aubrayo Franklin, to contain the physical Jackson and put the game in Bradford’s inexperienced hands.
• Quarterback Troy Smith showed remarkable poise and put up surprisingly good numbers in his first start as a 49er, leading the team to a 24-16 victory over Denver. He completed 12-of-19 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions and a passer rating of 115.2. Now Smith will have to prove that performance was no fluke while facing a Rams defense that is well rested coming a bye.
The Rams are one of the league’s feel-good stories this year, fighting for the playoffs one year after finishing 1-15. Their aggressive defense is much improved, and Bradford has given the offense a spark. But St. Louis is 0-3 on the road this season, has lost four of its past five games in San Francisco and will face a 49ers team that is fighting for its playoff life. 49ers 24-17.