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NFC Championship Prediction and Preview: San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Rams

NFC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Rams

"Cal-i-forn-yuh knows how to party."

"Ain't no party like a West Coast party."

If there is one thing that Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. could agree on it is that they know where to go to have a rip-it-up blowout of a night ... the Golden State.

And in the NFL, SoFi Stadium is about to host two big parties. The first one will go down on Sunday as Left Coast rivals San Francisco 49ers (10-7) and Los Angeles Rams (12-5) will hook up for the third time. The winner gets to make a return to SoFi in two weeks.

Unless you have been living under a rock — and if so, that sounds wildly uncomfortable — you already know that both of these teams are coming off of walk-off wins in the Divisional Round as the Niners took down the Packers 13-10 and the Rams prevailed over Tampa Bay 30-27, thereby knocking out a pair of Hall of Famers in Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady on back-to-back days.

Hey, you guys got another last play encore this week?

NFC Championship: San Francisco (10-7) at Los Angeles (12-5)

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX
Spread: Rams -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Would it be too obvious to say the QBs?
Jimmy Garoppolo had a 141.7 passer rating in the first game vs. the Rams back in Week 10 and then followed that up with a huge comeback from a 17-point deficit to beat them in overtime in Week 18. Now, if you're going to throw shade on Jimmy G it's because he's thrown two touchdowns and six interceptions since Week 15. But note this statistical oddity: Garoppolo is 9-3 in the regular season and 3-0 in the playoffs when he doesn't throw a touchdown pass. Weird, right?

As for Matthew Stafford, well, he's dealing with a lot of peaks and valleys himself. So in essence, you never know which Stafford will show up. Will it be the brilliance of going 41-of-55 for 568 yards, four TDs, and no picks against the Cardinals and Buccaneers this postseason? Or will it be the Stafford who had six touchdowns against seven interceptions in his final three games of the regular season? Based on the fact that Stafford has had passer ratings of 121.2 and 154.5 in his two playoff games, he has stepped up his game at the most important time of the season.

2. Pass rush vs. pass rush
Both teams have shown a great D-line push and an ability to put enough pressure on opposing QBs recently to make them look shakier than Don Knotts in the pocket. (Wait, too obscure of a reference? Okay, they look as unstable as Shaky Graves in the pocket).

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For the Niners, their cornerbacks/safeties have been dealing with a rash of injuries this year, so it's the pass rush of their front seven that has forced teams into bad throws. That means the onus falls on Nick Bosa, who will be matched up with a gimpy-ankled Andrew Whitworth. For the season Bosa has 15.5 sacks and 33 pressures. On the other side, when Aaron Donald and Von Miller both rush the QB, those QBs have a 2.3 QBR this postseason. On top of that, 49ers left tackle Trent Williams' ankle was still wobbly this week and the All-Pro did not participate in practice on Wednesday or Thursday.

When teams pressure Garoppolo, his QBR drops from 66.2 when making throws without pressure to a rather putrid 8.1 when he's got defenders in his grill. Meanwhile, Stafford has a 139.6 rating when facing the blitz, easily the best mark of any quarterback in the NFL.

3. Five under-the-radar types who should make a difference
Other than the marquee players, here is who else could make or break the game.

Elijah Mitchell, RB, 49ers
It is obvious that Deebo Samuel is THE non-QB player to watch for the Niners, but don't sleep on Mitchell. The 49ers have out-gained the Rams 291-116 on the ground in the previous two meetings.

Arik Armstead, DE, 49ers
While Bosa gets a lot of ink, it's Armstead who leads the Niners in sacks through two playoff games with three, and he also had 2.5 sacks vs. the Rams back on Jan. 9.

Tyler Higbee, TE, Rams
Higbee has quietly stepped up his game. In the last six, he's been targeted 40 times and made 29 catches, showing a knack for making a key grab when the Rams need it most.

Jalen Ramsey, CB, Rams
The All-Pro had mixed results against the Buccaneers' Mike Evans, giving up eight catches on 16 targets, but one of those was a 55-yard bomb allowing Tampa Bay to get back in the game.

Kickers
Both Robbie Gould and Matt Gay kicked their respective teams into the next round of the playoffs with last-play field goals last week. But Gay has the ignominious honor of being the first NFL kicker I can recall coming up short on a 47-yard attempt probably since the old square-toed straight-on kickers of yore.

Final Analysis

It's no shock that the 49ers hope to play ball control once again (75:47 to 52:21 of possession time in the first two games), shortening the game and using Samuel and Mitchell to ground and pound while asking Garoppolo to make easy, safe passes has been a recipe for success. San Fran also has won six in a row over its NFC West rivals.

But if you think the Rams should win simply by the logic of "third time's the charm" or "they are due," don't get too geeked on that childish tomfoolery. This situation has happened 22 times since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger, and the teams that won the first two matchups went on to win the third showdown in the postseason 14 times. Although I'm not sure if the losing team has been favored in all three games like the Rams are going into Sunday.

Still, as stupid as this sounds, I think the Rams are due.

Prediction: Rams 31, 49ers 27

— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.