NFL Preview - San Francisco (7-8) at St. Louis (1-14)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The St. Louis Rams close out what could be the worst season in their history this Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, where the long- suffering team will try to end a 12-game home losing streak in an NFC West clash with the San Francisco 49ers.
A loss in Sunday's finale would give the Rams their first-ever 1-15 finish and ensure the club the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 draft, a lone consolation prize for what's been another dismal campaign. St. Louis, which picked second in each of the previous two drafts, has won an NFL-low six times since the start of the 2006 season.
The Rams' present standard for futility was a 1-10 mark set in 1937, when the organization was based in Cleveland and in its second year of operation. The team ended 1-12-1 while situated in Los Angeles in 1962.
At first glance, St. Louis' chances for preventing a dubious new record don't appear overly promising. Not only have the Rams not prevailed at the Edward Jones Dome since a 34-14 upset of Dallas during Week 7 of last season, they've lost 13 straight times against fellow NFC West members. That includes a 35-0 dismantling at the hands of the 49ers back on October 4.
Moreover, running back Steven Jackson, St. Louis' unquestioned best offensive weapon, is dealing with a herniated disc in his back that forced the Pro Bowl honoree to miss last Sunday's game at Arizona. His absence further weakened an already impotent offense that mustered only 238 total yards in a 31-10 setback to the division-champion Cardinals.
Jackson, the NFC's leader with 1,353 rushing yards, is expected to give it a go this weekend and provide some welcome support for struggling young quarterback Keith Null. The rookie was intercepted three times by Arizona, giving him 10 turnovers in three games during his audition as the Rams' starter under center.
More mistakes could be coming Null's way if he again draws the assignment on Sunday. An opportunistic San Francisco defense produced six takeaways, including three picks of Detroit signal-caller Drew Stanton, in a 20-6 triumph over the lowly Lions this past weekend, and has induced a whopping 15 turnovers over the its past three outings.
The win put the 49ers in position to end a string of six consecutive losing seasons for the once-glorious franchise, as San Francisco can finish with an 8-8 record by defeating the Rams.
Sunday's game also figures to have special meaning for Niners wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who will be playing what's believed to be the final game of a distinguished 16-year career in the city where he spent the majority of those seasons. The 37-year-old was a member of the Rams from 1994-2007 and owns team records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, in addition to earning four Pro Bowl nods and helping St. Louis to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Bruce was still in a Rams' uniform for that team's most recent win over a divisional foe. That came against the 49ers in San Francisco on November 8, 2007, a 13-9 verdict.
The Rams hold a 60-57-2 edge in their regular season series with the 49ers, but have lost three straight against San Francisco since winning at Candlestick Park in 2007. As mentioned, the 49ers were 35-0 home winners when the teams met in Week 4, and swept last year's home-and-home, including a 17-16 decision in their trip to the Edward Jones Dome in Week 16. The 49ers are 2-0 in St. Louis since last losing there in 2006.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with San Francisco earning a 30-3 home triumph over the then-Los Angeles Rams in the 1989 NFC Championship.
San Francisco's Mike Singletary is 3-0 against the Rams as a head coach, while the Rams' Steve Spagnuolo is 0-1 against both Singletary and the Niners as a head man.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco will have a much different look on offense than in the earlier meeting between these teams. The Niners started out the year with a ball- control philosophy centered around versatile running back Frank Gore (1013 rushing yards, 50 receptions, 11 total TD) and with caretaker Shaun Hill (943 passing yards, 5 TD, 2 INT) at quarterback, but have since evolved into a spread-based attack that's well-suited to the skills of triggerman Alex Smith (2128 passing yards, 17 TD, 12 INT), who supplanted Hill as the team's starter in midseason. The switch has clearly profited tight end Vernon Davis (72 receptions, 12 TD), as the gifted former first-round pick has hauled in nine touchdown passes and delivered three 100-yard efforts in Smith's 10 games at the controls. The addition of rookie receiver Michael Crabtree (45 receptions, 2 TD), who sat out the season's first five tests in a contract dispute, has also helped make a unit that still ranks an uninspiring 29th in total yards (288.2 ypg) a slightly more dangerous outfit. Gore continues to hold a big role even with the 49ers' shift to a more pass-oriented team, however. The four-time 1,000-yard rusher piled up 152 yards from scrimmage (81 receiving, 71 rushing) in last Sunday's win, following up a pair of 100-yard performances on the ground over the previous two weeks.
The Rams had one of their better defensive showings in their Week 4 loss to San Francisco, holding the 49ers to 228 total yards and amassing four sacks in spite of the lopsided final score. Neither Smith nor Gore (sprained ankle) played in that game, however, and a St. Louis squad that's surrendered the fourth-most yards in the league (375.7 ypg) may be hard-pressed to duplicate that feat this time around. An injury-riddled secondary has given up an average of over 315 passing yards a game over the past three weeks, and the group hasn't gotten much help all year long from a sporadic pass rush that's generated only 22 sacks on the season, the third-lowest total in the NFL. St. Louis did play last week's tilt without starting ends Leonard Little (23 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and James Hall (37 tackles, 3.5 sacks) due to a knee infection and personal matter, respectively, but Spagnuolo is hopeful both will be on the field come Sunday. Hall recorded seven tackles and a sack against San Francisco back in October. Promising rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (115 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) leads a shaky front seven that has allowed an unhealthy 138.4 rushing yards per game (27th overall).
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Provided his ailing back holds up, Jackson (1353 rushing yards, 4 TD, 51 receptions) will be getting the ball early and often to help ease the burden on Null (509 passing yards, 3 TD, 9 INT) and a painfully-young receiving corps, which would also have the dual benefit of keeping St. Louis' porous defense on the sidelines. The workhorse back was still playing at a high level prior to sitting out the club's latest loss, totaling a combined 123 yards (82 rushing, 41 receiving) in a defeat to Houston two weeks back. The Rams will likely use the finale as an opportunity to further evaluate their young offensive players, with Null throwing passes in the direction of wide receivers Brandon Gibson (31 receptions, 1 TD), Donnie Avery (45 receptions, 5 TD) and Danny Amendola (40 receptions, 1 TD) -- all of whom are in their first or second pro season -- and sophomore John Greco and rookie Roger Allen the projected starting guards of a patchwork offensive line that will be without three season-opening regulars. St. Louis has scored a league-low 169 points thus far in 2009 and ranks only 27th overall in both total offense (290.7 ppg) and passing yards (177.6 ypg).
The mistake-prone Rams, whose 33 giveaways are tied for the third-most in the NFL, will be taking on a San Francisco stop unit that has morphed into quite a playmaking bunch down the stretch. Two weeks after forcing seven turnovers to knock off playoff-bound Arizona on December 14, the Niners had six takeaways against the disheveled Lions. The defense also wreaked havoc in the earlier encounter between these teams, racking up five sacks and causing three turnovers, including an interception by Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Willis (147 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 INT) that was returned for a touchdown, while limiting St. Louis to a paltry 177 total yards. Willis, who registered 2 1/2 sacks in that game as well, headlines a quality four-man crew that also contains a pair of capable disruptors in outside backers Manny Lawson (67 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (19 tackles, 6 sacks), in addition to keying a run defense that stands seventh in the league in that category (97.7 ypg). Sturdy nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (34 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) has done his part as well, while strong safety Michael Lewis (77 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is regarded as one of the better stoppers at his position. Jackson could gain just 79 yards on 23 carries against the Niners back in Week 4.
Gore shapes up as one of the best fantasy plays for the season's final week, as the 49ers should be able to run at will on St. Louis' submissive defense and there's no reason to hold him back with no more games left on the schedule. Jackson isn't as strong an option at the running back spot, though, due to his health issues and a very difficult matchup. Davis is the other absolute must-start for this game, with Crabtree and Smith both getting an upgrade in value because of the Rams' glaring liabilities. Other than Jackson, no St. Louis player is worthy of consideration with the possible exception of Gibson, the team's best receiver late in the year. Start a San Francisco defense that came through with both a defensive and special-teams touchdown when these teams last met.
The 49ers have plenty of incentive to win this game, and the Rams have more than enough reason to lose it. And with St. Louis fielding what's in essence a preseason roster due to all the injuries and uncertainty, San Francisco stands a good chance of coming away with a feel-good win that can be used as a springboard for next season. All the Rams really have to look forward to at this point is April's draft, and odds are they'll be on the clock when the curtain finally closes on a trying first season of the Spagnuolo era.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 31, Rams 10
12/30 17:01:30 ET