A season on the line: Previewing Niners vs. Rams

It’s a crucial year-end matchup between historic rivals

By Bruce Macgowan

Special to The Examiner

Christmas came early for San Francisco sports fans this year. Then it came late.

First, we had the pleasure of watching the Giants and Dodgers in the postseason. It was a show none of us will forget anytime soon, despite the unfortunate outcome. Now, it’s the Niners and Rams in the last game of the NFL season, with a playoff berth on the line.

Could you ask for anything more? You’d be asking a lot.

The Niners come into Sunday’s matchup with a 9-7 record and a chance to clinch a wild card spot despite a seriously topsy-turvy season. At times, San Francisco looked unbeatable. At other times, they looked horrible. So it goes in today’s NFL, where injuries, a longer season and the never-ending COVID pandemic have made any sense of normalcy a charade. There’s no clear cut favorite to win the Super Bowl this year, so anyone who makes the postseason tournament has as good a chance as anyone else. At least that’s what the Niners are hoping.

The Rams have a chance to win the NFC West, which would put them in a much better spot for the playoffs. Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, meanwhile, are in a desperate mode. They can’t depend on Atlanta beating New Orleans earlier in the day, which would clinch a wild card berth for San Francisco before the Rams game even starts. A win in LA will mean a wild card berth no matter what happens in the other game so the head coach and his players have labeled this as a “playoff game” because of the possible win-or-go-home scenario.

So, what’s going to happen? Here’s some food for thought.

In this storied rivalry, Shanahan has gotten the better of his good friend, Rams head coach Sean McVay, in their head-to-head matchups the past few years. The Niners have beaten the Rams five straight times.

But LA, which already has a brilliant receiving corps, led by the league’s best pass catcher in Cooper Kupp, got good news this week. Running back Cam Akers will be ready to make his season debut. Akers has been rehabbing since an Achilles injury and could be ready to start Sunday, which could make the Rams’ offense even more explosive.

“Cam’s got a chance to contribute and this is a pretty cool story,” said McVay when he relayed the news to reporters.

Last year, as a rookie, Akers played in 13 games and rushed for 625 yards while scoring a pair of TDs. He also pulled in 11 passes for 123 yards and another score.

With strong-armed Matthew Stafford possibly having an effective young Akers in the backfield to complement his stellar group of receivers, the Niners’ defense will be facing a huge challenge.

When the Niners have the ball, a lot will depend on who’s taking the snaps. Rookie Trey Lance did a fine job filling in for injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo last Sunday against the Texans, leading the team to victory. But Garoppolo wants to play and has been practicing with the team during the week.

It’s a tough decision for Shanahan, but that’s what head coaches are paid to do. Whoever leads the Niners offense, they’ll have to contend with the Rams’ vicious pass rush, led by pass rush specialist Aaron Donald who, along with teammates Leonard Floyd and Von Miller, combined to sack opposing quarterbacks 20.5 times this season.

On defense, Shanahan has to decide if he’s going to start veteran cornerback Josh Norman Sunday, or go with the rookie Ambry Thomas, who has shown improvement the last few games. Even though he’s been durable, Shanahan pulled Norman off the field after a costly pass interference call against the Texans, so Thomas could start at one corner while Emmanuel Moseley, who has been banged up, might start at the other spot.

Shanahan is also hoping Dontae Johnson will be available but won’t know about his status possibly until Sunday because the cornerback has been in COVID protocol.

“Josh has held up throughout the year but Dontae went in and did a good job and Ambry’s been doing really good, once he got the opportunity,” said Shanahan. “We’ll see how Emmanuel’s at this week, so hopefully we’ll end up having four good options.”

The Niners will need their front four to put some pressure on Stafford to take some of the burden off of the secondary.

The quarterback of San Francisco’s defense is linebacker Fred Warner and he knows what it means to face Stafford.

“Stafford is playing lights out right now,” said Warner earlier this week at the Niners training facilities in Santa Clara.

The strong-armed former Detroit Lion is having a great season, completing just over 67% of his passes while firing 38 TD strikes in 16 games. But Stafford also has been vulnerable of late. Even though the Rams have won five in a row, he’s been picked off six times in the last three games and this past week he was intercepted twice and fumbled once.

“I hate going over all of these, to be honest with you. I’m tired of doing it,” he told reporters Wednesday.

But McVay isn’t taking any shots at his quarterback.

“I love this guy so much. I feel I can certainly help him by putting him in some better spots, but when he’s had to have it, and the defense has made a stop, Matt has made big throws in clutch situations. That’s what great players do.”

With so much attention focused on the 49ers’ quarterback situation, what Stafford does Sunday against the Niners’ defense could turn out to be the story of the day.

Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. He has covered Bay Area sports for over 30 years.

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