Oddsmakers have the Rams favored by nine points, down from eleven earlier in the week. This game was also flexed out of the Sunday night prime time slot because a lot of people consider it a mismatch. Maybe it will be, but I would throw in a couple of cautionary notes. First of all the Rams barely escaped with a win last time they visited Levi Stadium in a 2017 Thursday night game. Secondly, the Rams have eked out close wins on the road the last couple of weeks over teams they were heavily favored to beat. The Rams also will be missing a key wide receiver in Cooper Kupp, and Head Coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay know each other well from their days together on the Washington Redskins, not to mention the fact these teams face each other twice a year. Division match ups are usually tough games, especially on the road. In the NFL, familiarity often breeds upsets. The Rams SHOULD win this game, but it isn't the slam-dunk many people seem to assume.
Rams Offense vs 49ers Defense
Todd Gurley ran wild last week, rushing for over 200 yards against the Denver Broncos, and if he comes anywhere close to that this week, the Rams will win. The niners rush defense is a middling 14th in the league, giving up an average of four yards per carry, and one of the key match ups of this game is Gurley vs. the San Francisco linebackers. As a Rams fan, I like our chances in that battle, especially since Gurley is a dual threat back who is also deadly as a receiver. But the problem for San Francisco is the same problem every other Rams opponent faces--you can try to shut down Todd Gurley or Jared Goff and the Rams outstanding wide receivers, but doing both is a tall order. Actually, even doing one is difficult, doing both has been almost impossible so far. The 49ers will catch a break because the Rams are missing wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who is out with a knee injury. Josh Reynolds will probably see most of the snaps in Kupp's absence. That's not all bad for the Rams, because a lot of people have been waiting to see what the former fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M might be able to do in a starting role. Meanwhile, the Rams will see a (not so friendly) old friend in the secondary, where former Seahawk Richard Sherman will line up (mostly) as the left cornerback. Sherman may be in a foul mood after being flagged for a key interference call that helped the Packers escape with a last minute win on Monday night. Sherman will probably mostly see either Brandin Cooks or Reynolds, while over on the right side Jimmy Ward will see a lot of Robert Woods. I frankly don't know if Ward is up to containing Woods one-on-one. Woods isn't flashy in any one particular area, but he does everything well and seems to always make the big catch when the Rams need it. Denver stayed in the game last week against the Rams in large part by sacking Jared Goff five times and harassing him for most of the day, but San Francisco doesn't have Von Miller or Bradley Chubb. They do have defensive tackle Deforest Buckner, who has logged 4.5 of the niners 12 sacks so far, and Rams guards Rodger Saffold and Austin Blythe need to contain him (Buckner may line up at either left or right dt). Otherwise the niners defense will face a choice between blitzing a lot and risking the Rams scoring on big plays, or trying to play coverage and possibly letting Goff pick them apart, as he can do given the time to throw. All things considered, I would be surprised if the Rams don't score at least 30 points, as they have done every week so far in 2018 except last Sunday. But containing Buckner is critical.
Rams Defense vs 49ers Offense
If San Francisco is going to win this game they need to take advantage of a Rams defense that has been up and down this season. The much-heralded niner quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has plenty of time to date porn stars right now, having suffered a season-ending knee injury. That means the Rams will face C.J. Beathard. Beathard is no Jimmy G, but he is a tough, gritty quarterback with a strong arm, and the Rams can't take him lightly. Some scouts think Beathard is far less effective when you can pressure him and force him to ad-lib, so a key to victory for the Rams may be generating an inside pass rush from Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Micheal Brockers. Unfortunately for the Rams, outside linebackers Samson Ekubam and Matt Longacre have under-achieved so far in terms of rushing the passer, so it may be up to the d-line to disrupt the 49er passing game. That's a good-news, bad news situation for the Rams. The good news is that the 49ers are allowing 3.3 sacks per game, 27th in the league. The bad news is that for whatever reason, NFL refs have been allowing opposing linemen to outrageously hold the Rams pass rushers (especially Aaron Donald) this year. I hate to blame the refs, but Sean McVay has commented on it and as someone who has seen virtually every Rams play this season, he is right. Let's hope that doesn't happen on Sunday. The 49ers best receiver has been tight end George Kittle, and Rams safety John Johnson will be in charge of keeping Kittle in check, one fo the key match ups in this game. Niners wide receiver Marquis Goodwin is lightning fast and a Rams secondary that has been up and down with Aquib Talib on the sidelines needs to limit his big plays. Rams corner Marcus Peters was better last week after an abysmal game against Seattle, but he has a tendency to gamble and go for the pick instead of just defending the pass. On the other side, Troy Hill struggled last week. Both he and fellow corner Sam Shields (they often alternate) have been up and down in place of Talib, and frankly they need to play better. On the ground, 49er running back Matt Breida has had some big games, and despite some injury concerns earlier in the week he's expected to play. The San Francisco offensive line has been much better at run blocking than pass blocking, and the niners could go ''ground and pound" in an effort to keep the explosive Rams offense off the field. That strategy paid off two weeks ago for Seattle when they almost upset the Rams. It wasn't nearly as effective for Denver last week. I'm going to give the Rams the edge here, but their defense really needs to step up or this game could be closer than people think.
The good news for Los Angeles is that placekicker Greg "the leg" Zuerlein is back after missing several weeks with a groin injury. Assuming he is fully healed and isn't too rusty, that's a big deal and could be decisive in a close game. The Rams also had return man Jojo Natson back on the field last week, and he's been solid filling in for Pharoh Cooper. Rams linebacker Corey Littleton already has one blocked punt this season as a special teams player, and he is always a threat to block another. Through in punter Johnny Hekker and you have probably the best set of special teams in the NFL.
The NFL network's Reggie Wayne this week predicted a 49er upset win. That COULD happen if San Francisco can either wrack up some serious points or go ball-control and run the ball effectively, along with a getting a couple of turnovers (at least) on defense. You can never take these division road games lightly. But having said all of that, the Rams are clearly a better team, and they should win this game.