It’s do-or-die for the Los Angeles Rams as they head north to face the rival San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night. The Rams' playoff hopes took a major hit last Sunday by way of a 44-21 shellacking at the hands of the Cowboys. Now 8-6 on the season, it will take a minor miracle for the defending NFC champions to return to the postseason, requiring wins against both San Francisco and Arizona to close out the regular season, in conjunction with Minnesota losing both of its final two contests against Green Bay and Chicago. However unlikely that scenario may be, Sean McVay’s Rams won’t lack for motivation on Saturday night. An upset victory over the 49ers would not only keep their playoff aspirations on life support, it also would throw a wrench into the postseason plans of their biggest rival.
The 49ers went into their Week 15 matchup against the Falcons sitting alone atop the NFC standings as a prospective No. 1 seed. They exited with an embarrassing 29-22 loss, relegated to the No. 5 playoff spot by virtue of a tiebreaker with Seattle for the NFC West lead. The good news is that the 49ers have already punched their ticket into the postseason. And while they now find themselves in a four-way tie for the best record in the conference at 11-3, they still control their own destiny with an opportunity to regain the No. 1 seed and all the spoils that come with it. But in order to make that happen, San Francisco will need to come away victorious against the Rams on Saturday night, and follow that up with a win against the Seahawks in Week 17 for the NFC West title.
Saturday night will mark the second meeting between Los Angeles and San Francisco this season. The 49ers scored a decisive 20-7 win against the Rams in Los Angeles in Week 6 to extend their slim lead in the all-time series (70-67-3).
Los Angeles at San Francisco
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: 49ers -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Rams' passing game vs. 49ers' pass defense
It was tough sledding for the Los Angeles passing attack when these teams first met in Week 6. The 49ers held Jared Goff to a career-low 78 passing yards. And top targets Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods combined for just four catches for 17 yards on the evening. Unfortunately, Saturday night's matchup against the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the NFL isn’t shaping up to be particularly favorable either.
Atlanta’s Julio Jones did rip San Francisco's secondary to shreds last week, which provides a glimmer of hope for Goff and company. However, the 49ers were down three starters in that matchup. Two of those — Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams — are expected to return this week. And while Kupp and Woods are both outstanding wide receivers in their own right, Jones is simply on another level. It also doesn’t help that Goff is nursing a bruised thumb on his throwing hand.
There’s also the matter of an elite 49ers pass rush, led by Arik Armstead (10 sacks) and Nick Bosa (9 sacks), that has collectively accounted for 47 sacks on the season (third in the NFL). Despite all the criticism that the Los Angeles offensive line has received this season, they have allowed just 21 sacks in 14 games (tied for the second-fewest in the NFL). That being said, the Rams did surrender a season-high four sacks against San Francisco in Week 6.
2. The 49ers' passing game vs. Rams' pass defense
San Francisco's aerial attack wasn’t exactly in top form back in Week 6 either. Jimmy Garoppolo posted a respectable 243 yards through the air but failed to throw a touchdown pass and tossed an interception to boot. The challenge could be even greater on Saturday night. The Rams currently rank ninth in the NFL against the pass, and now have lockdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey roaming the secondary, something they didn’t have in the first meeting.
Garoppolo will have the always reliable George Kittle to lean on. Kittle is coming off a career-high 13 receptions for 134 yards, albeit in a losing effort against the Falcons. And the star tight end hauled in all eight of his targets for 103 yards against the Los Angeles defense in Week 6. While that bodes well, Kittle is sure to draw plenty of attention from the Rams this time around.
The 49ers' offensive line could also have a difficult time containing a Los Angeles pass rush that has racked up 43 sacks in 14 games (tied for the fifth in the NFL). The matchup to watch here pits reigning two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald (11 sacks) against backup center Ben Garland. Garland will be making just his second start for the 49ers in place of the injured Weston Richburg. He will likely get some help from guard Mike Person. However, Person is dealing with a neck injury that could limit his ability to render aid, and with Donald’s track record of successfully eating up double-teams, it may not matter anyway.
3. Keep it on the ground!
With question marks surrounding the passing games for both teams, it might not be a bad idea for each offense to lean more on their respective run games this week. That seems like a no-brainer for the 49ers, who boast the No. 2 rush offense in the NFL — averaging 147 yards per game. San Francisco features a trio of talented running backs in Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert that has combined for 1,769 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground so far this season. But it will most likely be the red-hot Mostert that does the heavy lifting on Saturday night. Mostert is averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per carry and has scored at least one touchdown in each of the 49ers' last four games. That bodes well against a Rams run defense that ranks just 23rd in the league (115.6 ypg) after surrendering a season-high 263 rushing yards against the Cowboys last Sunday.
It might be a wise decision for the Rams to keep the ball on the ground as well. San Francisco doesn’t have many weaknesses on the defensive side of the football, but they are vulnerable against the run. In fact, only five NFL defenses allow more yards per carry than the Niners at 4.6. That should call for a heavy dose of Todd Gurley on Saturday night. Gurley missed out on the Week 6 matchup between these two teams and his absence was definitely felt. And while it may prove difficult for Gurley to consistently find running room behind a lackluster offensive line, he may be the Rams' best chance for success against this defense. It’s also no fluke that Los Angeles is 5-0 in games in which Gurley gets at least 19 touches.
The Rams’ Jekyll and Hyde routine this season has made them wildly unpredictable, which begs the question — Will the Los Angeles team that knocked off New Orleans and Seattle in impressive fashion show up or will it be the team that imploded in disastrous fashion in games against Baltimore and Dallas? The answer will make all the difference in the world, but taking into consideration that the 49ers completely shut down Sean McVay’s offense back in Week 6, it's difficult to like the Rams' chances on the road Saturday night against a superior San Francisco squad that still has a chance to secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Rams 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.