The NFC Championship Game features the third installment of a bitter division rivalry. The 4th-seeded Los Angeles Rams will host the 6th-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the second game of Sunday’s championship weekend doubleheader.
Both teams have faced their fair share of drama to this point. The 49ers held on for dear life to finish off the Dallas Cowboys before knocking off the top-seeded Green Bay Packers despite scoring just six points offensively. Meanwhile, the Rams demolished the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card round before nearly blowing a 27-3 lead against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a wild Divisional Round contest.
Can the 49ers take down the favored Rams for a third time? Or will Sean McVay’s crew find a way to overcome Kyle Shanahan’s Niners? Let’s break it down.
- Opening line: Rams -3.5
- Current line: Rams -3.5
- Total: 45.5
Why do the Rams struggle against the 49ers?
Kyle Shanahan has dominated this rivalry against Sean McVay, going 7-3 straight up and against the spread against him. Shanahan also swept the regular season series with the Rams, which included a comeback road overtime win that clinched a playoff spot in Week 18.
The question that need answering when digging into this game is why Los Angeles can’t seem to sleigh this dragon? And can they do anything differently to ensure a different fate?
I’ve written before that I have concerns about Los Angeles’ toughness against physical teams that pride themselves on pounding the rock. We’ve seen the Rams look their worst against teams like San Francisco and Tennessee.
So what’s gone wrong for Los Angeles against the Niners this year? A few things. First, San Francisco has dominated the box score in both games. The Niners outgained the Rams 335-278 and 449-265 in each game. San Francisco has dominated the running game, rushing for 291 yards combined in the two games. The Rams have rushed for just 116 yards and have struggled to establish the run. Matthew Stafford also hasn’t played his best against the 49ers, throwing a pair of interceptions in each game, including one that was returned for a touchdown in the first meeting.
In order to make it to the Super Bowl, the Rams need to get something out of their running game to keep Stafford out of third and long situations. The Rams rank 12th in rushing DVOA and have an offensive line that ranks sixth in adjusted line yards and ninth in second level yards. However, the Rams rank 21st in stuff rate, while the 49ers excel at stopping runs at or behind the line of scrimmage. San Francisco’s run defense is the second-best in the league per DVOA, and they rank second in adjusted line yards.
The 49ers can also rush the quarterback and finished fifth in the league in sacks. It’ll be up to the Los Angeles offensive line to win the trenches and keep the offense ahead of schedule. If the Rams can’t get a push, it could be another long day for Stafford. Getting Andrew Whitworth back at left tackle would be big help.
Speaking of Stafford, he clearly needs to be better than the first two times out against San Fran. However, Rams fans should be encouraged by his first two playoff outings. Stafford has thrown for 568 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, he’s avoided the colossal mistakes and has kept it clean in the postseason. Another clean sheet from Stafford would go a long way.
Can the Niners replicate past success?
You might’ve forgotten by now, but the 49ers were actually down 17-0 in the first quarter and were down 24-17 late in the fourth quarter against the Rams in Week 18. They wouldn’t even be here if not for a heroic game-tying drive led by Jimmy Garoppolo in the waning minutes.
But this playoff run has taken a toll on the 49ers, as Garoppolo, Trent Williams, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel all came out of the frigid game against Green Bay with injuries. All four are expected to suit up, but it’s fair to wonder how close they’ll be to 100% after a physical game in the cold last week.
But assuming all four are healthy, the 49ers should be able to once again move the ball on the ground. San Francisco’s biggest strength in the running game happens to be the biggest weakness within Los Angeles’ front.
Per FootballOutsider.com, the 49ers run the ball off left tackle 11% of the time, averaging 6.32 line yards per play, the best mark in the league. On the flip side, Los Angeles ranks 20th in average line yards allowed on plays off left tackle, despite ranking in the top 13 everywhere else.
Now, the Rams could place Aaron Donald or Von Miller on that left side, but that’ll just expose them in other areas of the trenches. Expect Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel to do plenty of work off the left tackle in Shanahan’s outside zone run scheme.
San Francisco’s pass defense is vulnerable, ranking just 16th in DVOA. However, the Rams haven’t been able to exploit the back end of this Niners defense. Stafford threw for fewer than 250 yards in both games. And that’s thanks to San Francisco’s ability to generate pressure without blitzing. The Niners blitzed at the 4th-lowest rate in the league, but racked up five sacks and 13 hits on Stafford in the last meeting.
As I noted in last week’s preview of Rams-Bucs, Stafford excels against the blitz, and he was great last week against Tampa. In fact, his deep shot to Cooper Kupp that set up the game-winning field goal came after the Buccaneers blitzed him.
But with Nick Bosa and the 49ers front four getting pressure on their own, the 49ers should be able to drop seven back in coverage, reducing the risk of big plays downfield while forcing Stafford to throw into tighter windows, resulting in mistakes.
It’s always hard to beat a team three times in a season. But the 49ers are simply a bad matchup for the Rams.
Offensively, San Francisco can exploit what’s arguably Los Angeles’ biggest weakness defensively. And if the Rams load up the box to defend the run at all costs, I suspect Jimmy Garoppolo would take advantage of guys like Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle being single-covered.
Defensively, the 49ers also can give the Rams fits if they can get pressure on Stafford without blitzing. Stafford’s curbed his turnover tendencies recently, but all it takes is one bad decision under duress to change the entire game.
There’s definitely a chance that the beat up 49ers are out of gas. But considering it’s a short road trip and considering that plenty of 49ers fans will travel to SoFi Stadium, I feel confident backing the 49ers with the points. And don’t be surprised if they’re hoisting George Halas Trophy Sunday evening.
The pick: 49ers +3.5
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