For two teams who were projected to be duking it out at right around .500 for the lead in the NFL West
, the Rams
could not have had much different seasons.
San Francisco, led by their first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, has turned into the juggernaut their defensive talent has suggested they had the potential to be the past few years, while the Rams have regressed under the weight of injuries, system changes, and just plain old lousy play. St. Louis is staring down yet another coaching change and the accompanying rebuild; San Francisco looks like the number two playoff seed in the NFC. In fact, with a five game lead in the worst division in football, the 49ers could actually clinch today with a win.
So it's against that rather dire backdrop the Rams travel to Northern California this afternoon as major, major underdogs. It would be easy to write off their chances of winning. Let's hope the 49ers are doing just that.
Key #1: Stop Frank Gore
Alex Smith has had a breakout year -- or at least a renaissance sort of season -- but Frank Gore is still the straw that stirs the drink for San Francisco on offense. After last year's semi-disastrous campaign, Gore looks to be back in the form which made him one of the top running backs in all of football over the previous four seasons.
Gore is on pace for well over 1,000 yards rushing this season; in fact, he may very well get there today if he has a good game against the Rams' rather porous run defense. (He's at 903 yards going into today's game.) Why this remade Rams' defense is still getting gashed for big chunks of yardage week after week is tough to understand, but they're going to have to buck that trend if the team is going to have any chance of forcing San Fran to hold off their celebration for at least one more week.
Key #2: Who's the Quarterback?
Sam Bradford is a gametime decision today, after reaggravating his ankle injury last week. Bradford hasn't been the same player since coming back; how much the injury has affected him is open to debate, but it's clear something is going on with the Rams' second-year signal caller.
Considering the matchup, the situation, Bradford's own struggles, and the extreme physical intensity of San Francisco's defense, I think there's an argument to be made for playing A.J. Feeley, even if Sam is physically capable of going. Feeley obviously lacks the long-term upside of Bradford, but has honestly looked better running the Ram offense this season, even taking both players at full strength. Factor in Bradford's compromised mobility, and it makes no sense to push him out on the field. Feeley gives you at least as strong a chance at winning today and has less chance of taking a shot that affects the future of the franchise thanks to an inability to avoid the rush.
Key #3: Match San Fran's Intensity
Harbaugh has the 49ers playing with an incredibly physical style, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Playing San Francisco this season is a little like playing Baltimore or Pittsburgh, defenses which go out of their way to level the big hit and can simply overpower the opposition. Intensity is not the first word which comes to mind in watching the Rams play, with the possible exceptions of Steven Jackson and some of the front seven on defense.
More than anything else, if the Rams want to have even the barest chance of winning today, they're going to have to find some way to come out and match the aggressiveness and intensity of the 49ers. San Francisco has been punching opposing teams in the mouth all year and watching them wilt away; the one team that has out-physicaled the 49ers this year is the Ravens, who recorded nine sacks en route to a Thanksgiving night victory.
I'm doubtful the Rams have what it takes to come out and keep up with the 49ers physically. Unfortunately, I'm also doubtful they can win without doing so.