By Sam McPherson
It's the final week of the NFL's regular season, and the San Francisco 49ers close out their schedule at home against the St. Louis Rams. Neither team is headed to the playoffs, of course, but that doesn't mean the game won't be fiercely contested at Levi's Stadium this Sunday.
The Rams have won two straight in this series dating back to last season, and they have a chance to sweep the 49ers for the first time since 2004. Meanwhile, San Francisco would like to avoid ending the season on a four-game losing streak, as the 49ers haven't won a game since Week 13. St. Louis is shooting for a fourth-straight victory to end the season at .500 after beating the Seattle Seahawks on the road last weekend.
The Rams are 7-8 this season, thanks to a late-season surge in the last month. This includes a sweep of the Seahawks, something the 49ers could only dream of this year. St. Louis' most impressive wins are the two victories over Seattle and a road win over the NFC West Division champion Arizona Cardinals. Clearly, the Rams can play with anyone in the league when they're at their best. However, losses to Baltimore and Chicago—two teams the 49ers beat this year—show how inconsistent St. Louis can be.
Rams on Offense
Rookie running back Todd Gurley is the focal point of the St. Louis offense, as the team is now starting quarterback Case Keenum. Shutting down Gurley won't be easy, as he could end up being the NFL Rookie of the Year after posting 1,108 rushing yards in just 13 games. He's also scored 10 touchdowns for the Rams this year.
Keenum is 3-1 as a starter, but he's only thrown 88 passes this season. One player the 49ers don't want to see with the ball in the open field is wide receiver Tavon Austin. He is a threat to score any time he has the ball, and Austin has both a 60-yard run and a 66-yard reception this season.
Rams on Defense
The St. Louis defense is in the top half of the league in terms of points allowed (13th, 20.7 per game), although the Bears scored 37 points off them in Week 10. The Rams held the 49ers to just six points back on November 1 in St. Louis, so the S.F. offense has its work cut out for it despite recent improvements.
Safety Mark Barron (105 tackles, 71 solo), defensive tackle Aaron Donald (11 sacks), and linebacker James Laurinaitis (108 tackles, 59 solo, and one safety) lead a strong unit that just held the Seahawks to 10 meaningful points last Sunday on the road. It's a defense that can dominate like few others when it's working properly.
Rams Players to Watch
Austin and Gurley have to be accounted for—and then some—on every offensive snap St. Louis takes. If either of them break free, watch out. Defensively, the Rams front four can really hurt an opposing offense. Besides Donald and fellow tackle Michael Brockers, ends William Hayes and Robert Quinn can both disrupt the 49ers offensive game plan very easily.
This game could go either way, in truth. The Rams are maddeningly inconsistent, even if they're playing lights out right now. The 49ers play so much better at home than they do on the road. It's the season finale for two teams that aren't playing in the postseason. It might come down to which team wants it more, and right now, that looks like the Rams. Look for the St. Louis defense to dominate this game from start to finish in a low-scoring affair, shutting out the San Francisco offense to end the season.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.
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