It has been a long time since the San Francisco 49ers played some meaningful football in the regular season's final week. Thanks to a great year under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, they'll be doing so later in January as well.
Having already captured their first division title and postseason trip in nine years, one would think the Niners would be antsy at getting postseason play underway. However, a victory over the St. Louis Rams this Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome would give San Francisco a first-round bye in the NFC Playoffs.
That's an opportunity the 49ers would love to jump on.
"Obviously, any time you'd love to lock up a bye, you'd take it I think," said quarterback Alex Smith, calling the possibility of a bye week a great opportunity.
Smith and the rest of the 49ers aren't worried about the risk of rust that comes with having a week off, but it does work in their favor that this regular-season finale means something. San Francisco can clinch the bye and the NFC's No. 2 seed with a win or a loss by the New Orleans Saints to the Carolina Panthers. Both games are slated for 1 p.m. (et) kickoffs.
San Francisco actually had a chance to lock up the bye last weekend after a 19-17 win over Seattle, but the Saints were able to knock off the Falcons the following day to keep pace.
Still, thanks to four field goals from David Akers, including the game-winning 39-yarder late in the fourth quarter, the 49ers moved to 12-3 after recording their second straight win. They are now looking for their first 13-win season since 1997 and haven't won six road games in a single campaign since 1996.
Smith was credited with his fifth come-from-behind win of the season, and four of those have now come on the road to match Joe Montana's club record set in 1989.
San Francisco's current quarterback and its star-studded defense didn't have much trouble when they hosted St. Louis back on Dec. 4, cruising to a 26-0 victory behind four Akers field goals and a pair of 50-yard-plus touchdown passes by Smith.
Despite that blowout win, San Francisco will still play it cautious with the 2-13 Rams.
"Yeah, no question, nothing to lose," said Smith of the Rams' mindset. "Nothing to lose from both coaches and players alike. So, potentially every trick in the book will get thrown at you, offense and defense, special teams. I'm sure they're going to throw everything at us."
Embattled Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who has begun to hear rumors of his possible departure at season's end, also expects the Niners to give his club its all given what is on the line.
"Only four teams get [a bye], right? Two in each [conference]," said Spagnuolo. "I do think it makes a big difference. Guys get healthy. I'm sure you're going to talk to Jim [Harbaugh], but I'm sure he's telling you that they're going after it."
The Rams will simply be going after some points after getting shut out last weekend in a 27-0 loss to a Pittsburgh club that was without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger due to a high ankle sprain.
St. Louis, though, was without its starting signal-caller in Sam Bradford for a second straight week and the fifth time in 2011 due to a high ankle sprain of his own. Kellen Clemens got a second straight start, but passed for just 91 yards.
It marked the second six-game slide for the Rams this season and dropped them to 10-37 overall under Spagnuolo.
Bradford would like to get on the field for this game, but was unable to practice early in the week and has yet to see the progress in the ankle that he needs.
"This week was really the first time that we had done much, and to be honest it didn't feel great in the little that we did do," Bradford said of his ankle. "So as far as that, until it gets better, until we do some more I really can't tell you [if he'll play]."
The Rams have a slim 61-60-2 edge in their overall regular-season series with the 49ers, but San Francisco has taken six of the past seven meetings between the teams following its 26-0 home shutout of St. Louis in Week 13. The Niners swept their home-and-home set with the Rams in both 2008 and 2009, with St. Louis earning a split last season because of a 25-17 home triumph in Week 16 that triggered the dismissal of then-San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary immediately afterward. The 49ers had prevailed in three straight trips to the Edward Jones Dome prior to that loss.
The 49ers also bested the Rams in the lone playoff encounter between the clubs, a 30-3 verdict at Candlestick Park in the 1989 NFC Championship when the Rams where still based in Los Angeles.
Spagnuolo is 1-4 against San Francisco during his two-plus seasons at the helm, while Harbaugh won his only previous matchup with both St. Louis and Spagnuolo as an NFL head coach with last month's victory.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Clock control and a solid ground game led by Frank Gore (1202 rushing yards, 8 TD) is the key to the Niners' offense, but the receivers could certainly benefit from an extra week off. Both Kyle Williams (20 receptions, 3 TD) and Ted Ginn Jr. (19 receptions) are questionable for this game due to a concussion and ankle sprain, respectively, while tight end Delanie Walker (19 receptions, 3 TD) is out after fracturing his jaw last week. That leaves wideouts Michael Crabtree (64 receptions, 2 TD) and Brett Swain as the only healthy options for Smith (2931 passing yards, 16 TD, 5 INT) along with tight end Vernon Davis (59 receptions, 6 TD). The Niners solved that problem last week by running for 178 yards, getting 83 and a score from Gore and another career-high 73 yards on 12 carries from rookie Kendall Hunter (397 rushing yards, 2 TD). Davis and Crabtree were targeted a combined 14 times by Smith and partnered up to make nine catches for 139 yards. That was the bulk of offense for Smith, who ended with just 179 yards passing but did not turn the ball over.
The Rams are a perfect team to run the football against, as they rank dead last against opposing ground games with 154.5 rushing yards allowed per contest. They gave up 144 rushing yards in the first meeting with the 49ers and saw the Steelers rack up 169 yards and three touchdowns on the ground this past weekend. That run-heavy strategy also took away the strength of the Rams, which is their pass rush. St. Louis is sixth in defending the pass (206.4 ypg) thanks to outstanding defensive ends James Hall (45 tackles, 5 sacks), Chris Long (34 tackles, 13 sacks) and rookie Robert Quinn (22 tackles, 5 sacks). Long, though, is still bothered by an ankle issue and cornerback Josh Gordy (40 tackles, 3 INT) has an abdominal injury. They'll need Gordy given that the Rams other starting corner, Justin King (58 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), won't play due to a shoulder problem that requires surgery. With the Steelers offering plenty of chances, linebacker James Laurinaitis (133 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) had a game- high 13 tackles, while fellow linebacker Chris Chamberlain (74 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had eight. Corner Rod Hood (16 tackles, 1 INT) notched seven stops, while Gordy had an interception and safety Quintin Mikell (84 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) made six tackles as the unit was held without a sack.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
As much as St. Louis can struggle on defense, it has been even worse on the other side of the ball. The Rams' 11.1 points per game is ranked last in the NFL, while they are also 31 out of 32 teams with an average of 281.7 total yards per game. The lone bright spot in last week's shutout that featured just 232 yards of offense was running back Steven Jackson (1069 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 6 total TD) logging 103 yards to surpass 1,000 yards rushing for a club-record seventh straight season. Backup Cadillac Williams (344 rushing yards) added 42 to the Rams' 164-yard rushing total, while Clemens (320 passing yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) struggled to complete just nine of his 24 pass attempts while getting sacked three times. Like Bradford (2164 passing yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) before him, Clemens looked a lot towards wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (64 receptions, 4 TD), who had three receptions for 29 yards on 12 targets against Pittsburgh. Only three other St. Louis players caught passes, with wideout Danario Alexander (23 receptions, 2 TD), rookie tight end Lance Kendricks (25 receptions) and Jackson garnering one each. Clemens will need more from the likes of wide receivers Brandon Gibson (35 receptions, 1 TD) and Dominique Curry in this game against a tough run defense.
Yes, the 49ers do rank first in the league in scoring (13.5 ppg) and run defense (75.1 ypg), but had both those averages eclipsed against a desperate Seahawks club last week. In fact, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch ran for 107 yards and a score to end a pair of streaks for the 49ers. It was the first time San Francisco gave up a rushing touchdown this season and marked the first time an enemy back ran for over 100 yards in team's past 36 contests. Perhaps playing without star linebacker Patrick Willis (93 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) for a third straight game due to a hamstring injury finally caught up to the Niners. Larry Grant (38 tackles, 2 sacks) started in Willis' place again and came up with 11 tackles and a forced fumble which safety Donte Whitner (60 tackles, 2 INT) recovered, while fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (133 tackles, 1 sack) had a game-high 12 stops to go with a sack. Defensive end Ray McDonald (38 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and rookie linebacker Aldon Smith (35 tackles, 14 sacks) also came up with sacks, with Smith extending his club's single-season rookie record. The 2011 first-round pick is one sack shy of setting the NFL rookie sack record as well. Cornerback Carlos Rogers (39 tackles, 6 INT) is key to the 49ers' secondary, but is questionable with a knee ailment. He is tied with safety Dashon Goldson (64 tackles, 6 INT) for the club lead in interceptions.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The 49ers lead the NFL with a plus-26 turnover ratio, having logged 36 takeaways to 10 turnovers this season. With the Rams likely to start Clemens again this weekend, San Francisco's playmaking linebackers and ball-hawking secondary could increase that number this weekend.
Alex Smith has been steady all season and doesn't turn the ball over. That is because he knows he doesn't have to force things thanks to Akers, who has hit an NFL-record 42 field goals this season. Akers also has a career-high 156 points on the year, making him the first player in the league to go over the 150 mark since LaDainian Tomlinson had 186 in 2006.
The Rams have nothing to lose, so they should be nice and relaxed. There is also some thought that they are playing for the job of Spagnuolo, meaning the entire roster should be giving 100 percent in this otherwise meaningless game. San Francisco knows a team with nothing to lose is a dangerous one, so St. Louis will need to capitalize on that mental edge.
Many are fairly wondering just how much effort the 49ers will put into this game with an eye on a bigger prize down the road. After all, San Francisco can still get a bye with a loss. However, the Niners have showed a blue-collar attitude all season long, and it would be shocking if Harbaugh let his players take their feet off the gas, especially early on. That's bad news for a banged- up and overmatched Rams team that took a big step back this year and could see some big changes after this contest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 23, Rams 6