NFL Preview - St. Louis (5-6) at San Francisco (7-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The San Francisco 49ers showed on Monday night that their offense isn't struggling as much as some may think.
The likely return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree can only help defeat remaining critics.
The defending NFC champions aim to stay in the thick of the playoff chase and keep their hopes of a division title alive this Sunday in what will likely be another tough game against the St. Louis Rams.
The 49ers offense and quarterback Colin Kaepernick were under fire heading into a showdown with the Washington Redskins after failing to crack 200 net yards in consecutive losses to Carolina and New Orleans.
Eager to silence doubters, Kaepernick threw for 235 yards with three touchdown passes in a 27-6 victory over the Redskins. It marked the first time he surpassed the 200-yard passing mark since Oct. 13 versus Arizona.
Anquan Boldin led with way receiving with five catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns, while tight end Vernon Davis also hauled in a scoring throw.
Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith combined for four sacks for the Niners, who held the Redskins to just 190 net yards of offense.
"For the team, this was one of those that we had to have. We came a long way to get it," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Our guys expended a lot of energy and toughness to get it."
San Francisco improved to 7-4, tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the second wild card spot in the NFC. The Niners also have a distant chance at catching the 10-1 Seattle Seahawks for first place in the NFC West.
The Rams are bringing up the rear in the division at 5-6, but have twice this season followed up three-game slides by winning two straight. Their latest winning streak featured a 38-8 road win over Indianapolis on Nov. 10 before the Rams came out of a bye to best the Chicago Bears 42-21 last Sunday.
St. Louis used the ground game to pick up the victory, totaling 258 rushing yards. Wide receiver Tavon Austin and running back Zac Stacy both scored rushing touchdowns as part of a 21-point first quarter that also featured a six-yard TD pass from quarterback Kellen Clemens to tight end Jared Cook.
Austin continued his recent surge, putting together a 65-yard run to the end zone just 1:30 into the game. It was the longest rush for the Rams since Marshall Faulk's 70-yard touchdown on Dec. 23, 2001.
"We talked about starting fast and we needed to do that, you know, coming off the bye week," noted Rams coach Jeff Fisher. "If you get your focus on the start, then you have a tendency to avoid the timing issues that often times happens. So that's what our focus was. We couldn't have started off better with the big play."
Stacy ran for 87 yards on 12 carries before leaving with a concussion and Benny Cunningham picked up the slack with 109 yards and a score on 13 carries.
Clemens threw for just 167 yards on 10-of-22 passing, but the Rams still managed to post 42 points in a game for the first time since Dec. 30, 2001.
St. Louis forced three turnovers, recovering a pair of fumbles in addition to safety Rodney McLeod's interception.
"This is what it's all about. That's why we play the game, for the atmosphere in (the locker room) really before you guys get in here, no offense," said Clemens. "That's why we play. We're a close-knit team. We don't have any of the egos. We don't have any issues like that. That's why you play it."
The Rams have had their recent issues with the 49ers, who are 8-2-1 in the last 11 meetings. That includes a 35-11 road victory for San Francisco back on Sept. 26, with Kaepernick throwing a pair of touchdown passes and Frank Gore running for another score.
These two clubs did battle to a 24-24 tie in last season's meeting in San Francisco. That was also the game in which former Niners starter Alex Smith exited early with a concussion, putting events in motion that saw Kaepernick take over the starting job.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The 49ers still rank last in football with an average of 173.5 passing yards per game, offset by the sixth-best ground game in the league, things could change with Crabtree finally set to start alongside Boldin for the first time.
San Francisco acquired Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens this past offseason looking to pair him with Crabtree, but the latter suffered a torn Achilles tendon during organized team activities back in May and had to undergo surgery.
Crabtree, who had 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago, was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Tuesday less than a day after Harbaugh said after Monday's win he expected the wideout on the field this weekend.
"It gives us some depth," Boldin said of Crabtree's return. "It gives another playmaker outside. It's another added dimension that we need. We've seen (Crabtree) over the years make plays and we expect nothing less of him."
Crabtree's likely return can only help Kaepernick, who posted a career-high 134.5 passer rating on Monday night.
The Rams have their own emerging playmaker in the rookie Austin, who was selected eighth overall in the 2013 draft. He has been a jack-of-all trades over the past few weeks, becoming the first player in NFL history to post a punt return for a score of 95-plus yards, an 80-plus yard receiving touchdown and a rushing score of at least 65 yards in the same season.
"Yeah, he's a tremendous athlete," Fisher said. "His stop-and-start ability is impressive. You know, we've had that (run play for Austin) in for a while and we pushed it up on the calling list today. Big play for us."
Austin's big run is just part of the Rams' new focus on the ground game, keyed by Stacy's emergence. St. Louis struggled for most of the season to replace Steven Jackson, though Stacy's status for this game is up in the air due to his head injury.
Cunningham would likely start in Stacy's place if he isn't cleared.
"The O-line has done an excellent job these past weeks opening the holes, being physical," noted Cunningham. "The practice squad guys have done an excellent job preparing those guys with a lot of hard, brutal padded practices, and I feel like it's kind of paying off and showing in the games."
Both the Niners and Rams feature some excellent pass rushers, starting with ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long for St. Louis.
Quinn had his team's lone sack versus the Bears, his NFC-leading 13th of the season. That takedown forced a fumble that Quinn recovered and took 31 yards for a touchdown.
Quinn has 14 sacks in his last 12 games, while Long has registered 10 1/2 over his previous 13.
San Francisco gets most of its pressure from outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Brooks. The latter has five sacks in his last three games, while Smith has five in four career games versus the Rams.
A steady Clemens and increased reliance on the ground game has started to give the Rams an identity, but that look faces a tough challenge this weekend regardless of how well they tend to play the 49ers.
San Francisco thrives at knocking opposing offenses out of rhythm and Clemens doesn't have the skill set to overcome such talent.
The Niners' solid defense allows for Kaepernick to succeed despite inconsistency, but he could begin to hit his stride with Crabtree back in the mix.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 27, Rams 13
11/28 11:37:40 ET