NFL Preview - St. Louis (2-9) at San Francisco (9-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - With his stomach likely settled from a bitter Thanksgiving dinner, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh now has a chance to give himself an early Christmas present.
The Niners have an opportunity this weekend to gift wrap their first playoff appearance since 2002 as they host the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers took an eight-game winning streak and a chance at the NFC West title into last their Turkey Day meeting with the Baltimore Ravens, coached by Harbaugh's older brother John, and the Ravens used a relentless pass rush to win "Harbowl" by a 16-6 margin.
Quarterback Alex Smith was sacked nine times as San Francisco lost for the first time since an overtime setback to Dallas on Sept. 18.
"We knew what type of defense they were, especially at home," Smith said. "We felt like they were getting the jump on us."
Still, with just two losses in 11 games and a five-game lead on both Arizona and Seattle in the division, a trip to the playoffs seems almost certain for San Francisco. The Niners can do so as NFC West champs for the first time in nine years with a victory in this game or a pair of losses by both the Seahawks and Cardinals.
Even if the 49ers clinch the division this weekend, they still have plenty to play for, as four of their final five games are against division opponents. San Francisco holds the second-best record in the conference, one up on 8-3 New Orleans but two back of 11-0 Green Bay.
"It's a big deal," said Harbaugh. "It's a step. We may be ahead on the chip count, but we don't have a seat at the final table. We need to focus on this game. We need to do everything we can to physically, mentally, emotionally prepare for this game because we know that the St. Louis Rams will be doing the same thing."
Harbaugh is poised to become the third rookie head coach in franchise history to win the NFC West in their first year, joining George Seifert (1989) and Steve Mariucci (1997). He gets his first shot against a Rams club that has lost two straight and sits last in the division with a 2-9 record.
St. Louis dropped home games to Seattle and Arizona after snapping a six-game road slide with a win at Cleveland on Nov. 13, losing 23-20 on a late field goal to the Cardinals this past weekend.
The field goal wasn't the only reason the Rams dropped the game, as they allowed Cards running back Beanie Wells to run for 228 yards.
St. Louis did get its first punt return for a touchdown since Dante Hall on Nov. 30, 2007 when Nick Miller took one 88 yards for a score in the first quarter and rallied from 20-10 deficit to tie the game, but couldn't finish off the Cardinals.
Arizona went ahead with 4:09 to play on Jay Feeley's 22-yard field goal and St. Louis had to punt on its resulting drive. That allowed the Cardinals to run out the clock after converting some big third downs.
"Very disappointing loss," Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "Parts of it I'd say we're in there battling and yet we made too many mistakes and end up losing the football game."
These two clubs will also meet in St. Louis in the regular-season finale on Jan. 1.
The Rams have a slim 61-59-2 edge in their overall regular-season series with the 49ers and halted a string of five straight losses to their longtime division foe with a 25-17 win in St. Louis during Week 16 of last season, a result that triggered the dismissal of then San Francisco-head coach Mike Singletary immediately afterward. The Niners did record a 23-20 overtime victory over the Rams at Candlestick Park earlier in the 2010 campaign and have topped St. Louis at home in three straight years. St. Louis' last road triumph in this set was a 13-9 decision on Nov. 18, 2007.
The 49ers also bested the Rams in the lone playoff encounter between the clubs, a 30-3 verdict at Candlestick Park in the 1989 NFC Championship when the Rams where still based in Los Angeles.
Spagnuolo is 1-3 against San Francisco during his two-plus seasons at the helm, while Harbaugh will be taking on both St. Louis and Spagnuolo for the first time as an NFL head coach.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
The Rams' 20-point total from last weekend was their highest since a 31-21 win over New Orleans on Oct. 30, though they managed just 272 yards of total offense against Arizona. Running back Steven Jackson (813 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 5 total TD) was limited to 64 yards on 17 carries and also caught three balls in the loss. As the leader of St. Louis' 21st-ranked run attack, Jackson is 46 yards shy of tying Henry Ellard for third in team history in all- purpose yards. Quarterback Sam Bradford (1971 passing yards, 6 TD, 5 INT) threw for 203 yards and was sacked twice last Sunday, though he did not throw an interception. He also continued to build his chemistry with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (50 receptions, 4 TD), who has caught a touchdown pass in three straight games from Bradford. He was St. Louis' leading receiver versus the Cardinals, pulling in five passes for 74 yards after getting targeted 10 times. St. Louis' receiving group could get a boost if Danario Alexander (16 receptions, 1 TD) can return this weekend from a hamstring issue that has held him out the past five weeks. Brandon Gibson (30 receptions, 1 TD) is second on the Rams in catches and was targeted seven times versus the Cards, making two catches for 30 yards.
Despite their Week 12 loss, the 49ers remained at the top of the NFL rankings in scoring (14.6 ppg) and run defense (75.5 ypg). San Francisco held Baltimore's Ray Rice to 59 yards on 21 carries and held the Ravens out of the end zone on the ground despite Baltimore getting to the goal line on one instance. The Niners also extended their streak of not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher to 33 straight games and have not given up a first-half touchdown in their past five outings. Unfortunately for San Francisco, it did not come up with a sack or a turnover versus the Ravens, something it will try to change in this game. The 49ers possess possibly the league's best inside linebacker pairing in NaVorro Bowman (103 tackles) and Patrick Willis (93 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), who each had eight tackles versus the Ravens. Lineman Ray McDonald (24 tackles, 3 sacks) added seven stops. Assuming the Niners control the Rams' ground game, cornerback Carlos Rogers (32 tackles, 5 INT) and safety Donte Whitner (46 tackles, 2 INT) will lead a secondary that hopes to contain Bradford and Lloyd. Tackle Justin Smith (40 tackles, 4.5 sacks) logged a career-high 3 1/2 sacks in a January meeting with the Rams in the 2009 season.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco's 26th-ranked offense was limited to 170 yards against the Ravens, while the Frank Gore-led ground game posted just 74 yards on 21 carries. Gore (909 rushing yards, 5 TD) himself accounted for only 39 yards on 14 rush attempts, leaving him 22 yards shy of passing Hall of Famer Joe Perry (7,344) for the most in team history. Under constant pressure, Alex Smith (2116 passing yards, 13 TD, 5 INT) had only 140 yards and did not throw a touchdown pass while getting picked off once. Michael Crabtree (44 receptions, 1 TD) led the Niners with six catches and 54 yards against Baltimore, and the wideout had an excellent game versus the Rams last December with a career-high 122 yards on six catches. That included a 60-yard scoring reception. Tight end Vernon Davis (43 receptions, 5 TD), who posted four catches and 38 yards versus the Ravens, also had a career game versus the Rams last Jan. 3. He tied an NFL record for a tight end with 13 receptions and hauled in a 73-yard touchdown pass. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards (14 receptions), meanwhile, revealed this week he is battling a shoulder injury that has him limited for Sunday's tilt. With San Francisco's struggles last week, kicker David Akers went 2-for-2 on field goal attempts and hit a 52-yarder, making him 6-for-6 on kicks of at least 50 yards this season.
Alex Smith could be under more pressure in this game if St. Louis defensive end Chris Long (25 tackles, 10 sacks) gets loose. Long set a new career high for sacks in a season last week, getting one of the three by the Rams on the day. He has seven sacks in his past five games, while safety Darian Stewart (61 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and rookie end Robert Quinn (15 tackles, 5 sacks) also got to the quarterback. Stewart, though, suffered a head injury versus the Cardinals and is questionable for this game. He tied linebacker Chris Chamberlain (48 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and cornerback Justin King (52 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) for the team lead with seven tackles against Arizona, while leading tackler and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (90 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) had six. End James Hall (37 tackles, 4 sacks) and tackle Fred Robbins (22 tackles, 1 sack) will also try to create some pressure for the Rams' eighth- ranked pass defense, but the club is last against the run by giving up 159.0 yards per game.
KEYS TO THE GAME
With the 49ers not likely to give Jackson much room to run, the pressure will be on Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. Lloyd has emerged as a true No. 1 receiver that the Rams have been lacking, and a return by Alexander would give Bradford plenty of options that also include Gibson and rookie Austin Pettis as well as tight end Billy Bajema. San Francisco's secondary will have its work cut out for it.
Speaking of San Francisco's run defense, the Niners are the first time to not allow a rushing touchdown through their first 11 games since the 1928 Providence Steam Roller. The 11-game run is also tied for the longest in the NFL since 1970 at any point in the season. Good luck, Jackson.
How the Niners respond to last week's disappointing loss will lend some clue as to how playoff-ready the team is. Harbaugh and his club can't look past the lowly Rams, as it still has a shot at one of the top two seeds in the conference that comes with a bye and some home-field advantage. San Francisco needs to jump out early and not give St. Louis any thoughts of playing spoiler.
The playoffs are all but guaranteed for the 49ers, and they look to make it official this weekend. On paper, San Francisco matches up with St. Louis very well. The Niners excel at running the ball and the Rams have had their troubles stopping opposing backs. San Francisco's offensive line will be looking for a bit of a bounce-back effort, however, and containing Long is a must. Still, San Francisco should have little trouble dispatching St. Louis and making Spagnuolo's seat a little hotter.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 27, Rams 12
12/01 19:11:22 ET