While it is not a "must win" game for the Rams, it is pretty essential for several reasons. First, a win assures the Rams of a first-round bye and home-field for the divisional round. If a playoff team can go into New Orleans and upset the Saints in the divisional round (unlikely, but certainly not impossible), the Rams could even end up hosting the NFC title game, if they can run the table. A loss could doom the Rams to a return trip to Chicago in the divisional round of the playoffs, and a January visit to Soldier Field to play a good Chicago Bears team would not be a good thing. Finally, the Rams need to follow up on last week's win over the Arizona Cardinals going into the playoffs on a high note. The Rams have a lot at the estate to play for on Sunday, and they will be doing it without their best offensive player (more on that in a moment)
Rams Offense vs. 49er Defense
First, the unfortunate news: Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley has been ruled out for this game with a knee injury. That presents a Los Angeles win all the more important because a first-round bye would give him two weeks to rest his inflamed knee, instead of only a week. There is a growing suspicion among some Ram fans that TG II's knee injury is more severe than the team has been letting on, but Coach Sean McVay still seems relatively optimistic about the injury, so let's pray for the best.
Now with the good news: CJ Anderson was great last week subbing for Gurley, rushing for 167 yards against the Cardinals. Yeah, it was the Cardinals, but that is still pretty impressive. Coach Mcvay also made some changes on offense, often featuring a two-tight end set as opposed to the three wide receivers the Rams had featured on 93 percent of their offensive plays before week 16.
Tight Ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett especially have been emerging as playmakers the last several weeks, and getting them both on the field as blockers give future Ram opponents a whole new dimension to scheme against on defense. Higbee's blocking skills have been coming to the forefront in recent games, and the two-tight end set allows the Rams to go ''ground and pound", opening up the play-action passing game and tamping down the pass-rush that has plagued quarterback Jared Goff in recent weeks. While Anderson is not the "big play" threat such as Gurley, however, he is a tough, punishing inside runner who fights for the last yard and has a knack for the goal line and first down marker. Even if Gurley is back for the playoffs at top speed, Anderson will still see some snaps, according to head coach Sean McVay. Having both backs available could give the Rams a "two-headed monster" that potentially could be better than the Alvin Kamara/Mark Ingram duo in New Orleans. Throw in the frequent ''jet sweeps" the Rams run, featuring wideouts Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, and the Rams could feature the league's best ground game come playoff time.
Even with Gurley out of the lineup on Sunday, we should see the Rams run the ball more effectively than they did against the Bears or Philadelphia Eagles, which is a piece of excellent news for Jared Goff and the Rams passing game.
The Rams face a San Francisco 49ers defense that is rated 10th in the NFL, and which provides some talent. Richard Sherman, whom the Rams know very well from his days as a Seattle Seahawk, hasn't had a great year statistically (four pass breakups and a fumble recovery in 13 games) but he is still Richard Sherman, and the physicality and attitude he brings to this defense matters. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is a 6'7" 300-pound monster who has notched 12 sacks this season. Many could argue that he is the best defensive tackle not named Aaron Donald. That could be a problem for the Rams interior O-line which had problems with Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox a couple of weeks ago. Rams guard Rodger Saffold will probably draw the assignment of containing Buckner, although the Rams may double up on him if needed.
One of the problems the Niners have on defense is an overabundance of guys like D-linemen Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead who were high draft choices but haven't played up to the expectations. However, somebody thought these guys had talent, and never we cannot ever be sure when that might show up on the field. Even so, if the Rams offense can contain Buckner, we like their chances in this game.
Rams Defense vs. 49er Offense
San Francisco has been decimated by injuries, with the offense bearing the brunt. Running back Matt Breida, wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, and tight end Garrett Celek are all out. That trio includes the teams fastest wide receiver and the guy who was the workhorse running back for much of the season. The Niners will also be missing wide receiver Dante Pettis, who had 129 yards in an upset win over Seattle a few weeks back. Of course, Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the darling of the sports media in 2017 is long gone as well, after sparking the Niners to six consecutive wins at the end of last season. However, San Francisco has to be pleased with the way former practice-team player Nick Mullens has stepped in at quarterback, compiling an excellent 91.6 passer rating. Tight end George Kittle has emerged as a truly elite tight end, with 1,228 yards receiving this season. Kittle has a chance to break Rob Gronkowski's season yardage record for a tight end at 1,328 (Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is only 54 yards short of that same record). Kittle had five catches for 98 yards in the first meeting between these two teams, although the Rams were able to limit his damage in the second half of that game after Kittle had a big first half. Rams safety John Johnson will probably see a lot of Kittle, and that matchup could be one of the keys to this game. At running back, the Niners will feature Alfred Morris, Matthew Dayes, and Jeff Wilson. Morris is a former 1,000 runner with the Redskins, while the other two are reasonably obscure backs who are getting a shot at playing time and a chance to make a name for themselves. Never know, but on paper that isn't a group of backs that scares anyone. San Francisco does have one of the league's better fullbacks in Kyle Juszczyk, who can be a threat in short yardage situations, but isn't exactly a speedster or a threat to break a lot of long runs.
The Rams defense has been trending in the right direction in recent weeks, although there are still question marks, Aaron Donald is three sacks short of the league record of 22.5, held by Micheal Strahan. All may remember that Strahan's record-setting sack was suspiciously easy, with Brett Favre "accidentally" falling on sack number 22.5. Given the historic rivalry--some would say outright dislike--between the Rams and 49ers, we doubt that AD will get any such gift in this game. However, he racked up four sacks in the first meeting between these two teams, and the way he has been playing a repeat performance is indeed not out of the question. The big problem for the Rams defense is that way too often Aaron Donald has been a one-person wrecking crew, not getting the kind of help from fellow d-lineman Micheal Brockers and Ndamukong Suh that many folks expected. Suh did have a somewhat better day against the Cardinals, logging a sack and batting down a pass, but there is still a strong suspicion that maybe he is not the player the Rams thought he was when they signed him to a one-year $14 million contract. Rams outside linebackers Dante Fowler and Samson Ebukam have both had their moments, but neither has been great overall. Somebody besides AD needs to step up if the Rams are to contend for a Super Bowl title.
The Rams secondary has been somewhat better since the return of Aqib Talib. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has gone to more zone coverage in recent weeks as opposed to the man-to-man defense that was prominent early in the year, and corner Marcus Peters has responded with improved play. The Rams will be without safety LaMarcus Joyner, who is nursing an ankle injury. Blake Countess and Marquis Christian replace him.
Despite the Rams' struggles on defense, they face a banged-up San Francisco offense that isn't great even with everyone healthy, and they should be able to keep the Niners scoring down. If they cannot, that does not bode well for the playoffs. The other x-factor here, of course, is turnovers by the Ram offense, which could change everything.
We habitually check this box for the Rams and will again this week, but the 49ers are not bad on special teams. Placekicker Robbie Gould seems to have been around forever, and he usually won't choke with the game on the line. The 49ers have better numbers than the Rams on kickoff returns, ranking 11th as opposed to a somewhat disappointing 19th for Los Angeles. However, we still think Johnny Hekker is the best punter in the league, and Greg Zuerlein is a threat to kick a field goal from 60 yards plus. The Rams need to avoid lapses in this area, like JoJo Natson's inexplicable punt-return fumble against the Eagles a couple of weeks ago, but we still consider this a team strength.
Most oddsmakers are favoring the Rams by roughly 10 points, but despite all of the San Francisco injuries, this game is no "gimme." Division games against arch-rivals tend to be dogfights, and it would not shock us if this game is a little closer than people think. Having expressed that, the Rams should win.