Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
For the second consecutive year, the 49ers wrap up their regular season in Los Angeles against the NFC West rival Rams. And for the second consecutive year, the Rams are headed to the playoffs while the 49ers are looking ahead to the offseason. However, unlike the previous season, the result of this game has major implications for both teams. The Rams need a win to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs and a 49ers win would shake up the top of the draft order. Here is a look at the key factors that could determine how the regular season will conclude.
The 49ers enter the game a hobbled mess on the injury front. Running back Matt Breida and wide receiver Dante Pettis join the growing group of players that will not suit up for the finale. WR Marquise Goodwin’s status is still up in the air as well. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback K’Waun Williams and linebackers Malcolm Smith and Mark Nzeocha have all been limited in practice. This is giving younger players a chance to prove their worth going into the offseason. WR Steven Dunbar Jr. was called up from the practice squad to replace Pettis and RB Jeff Wilson Jr. is continuing his extended tryout to make his case for the roster next season. The Rams do not enter the week with a clean slate, either. They are likely to be without All-Pro RB Todd Gurley and starting safety Lamarcus Joyner. Resting those players before the playoffs begin might be the smart play for Los Angeles.
Kyle Shanahan vs. Sean McVay
When both men were hired before the 2017 season, they represented the new breed of head coach: young, charismatic and offensive masterminds. McVay inherited a team with significantly more talent that had been squandered by the previous regime while Shanahan was starting a rebuild from scratch. Despite that difference, both have proven to be among the best playcallers and have made the most out of their players. Shanahan has turned late round picks and undrafted free agents into household names while McVay turned QB Jared Goff’s career around after a historically awful rookie season. Since both coaches will be without key weapons, scheme will be more important that usual and there are very few coaching matchups that are more exciting in football.
Can Nick Mullens Bounce Back?
QB Nick Mullens has played better than anyone could have expected after he replaced C.J. Beathard before the game against the Oakland Raiders. Mullens’ play against the Bears was not his best or worst performance of the season but it did include his worst play. On fourth-and-4 with 1:13 left in the contest, Mullens launched a pass downfield but out of bounds instead of running for the first down to keep the game alive. Before that play, he had done very well against one of the best defenses in the league. Mullens will look to rebound while facing the Rams for the first time in his short career. Los Angeles enters with the 16th ranked overall defense but does sport a great pass rush. How Mullens plays will go a long way in determining the outcome.
Defense Hasn’t Lost Their Fight
When rookie safety Marcell Harris hit Bears’ QB Mitch Trubisky late during a slide, a small fight broke out between the two teams. The other 49ers’ defenders were quick to jump to his aid, which was very indicative of how this squad has not quit on the season. They have continued to fight, putting together some of their best performances these last three weeks. Since the disappointing loss in Seattle, they have given up an average of only 17 points per game. Defensive end DeForest Buckner has racked up sacks, LB Fred Warner has been a shining star as a rookie and CB Richard Sherman has been playing at a Pro Bowl level despite his snub to Orlando. Goff and Co. will have their hands full going against a motivated, hungry and young group of defenders that have nothing to lose.
Aaron Donald Shooting for History
Rams DE Aaron Donald has been the best defensive player in the league this year. With all due respect to Bears LB Khalil Mack, Donald has been playing at an All-Pro level week in and week out. He sits only three sacks behind Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5. During the first matchup against the 49ers, Donald put together a career game with 4 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss and 5 QB hits. He will look to replicate those numbers in order to break Strahan’s record that has stood since 2001. However, if Donald is approaching the record-breaking play, do not look to Mullens to lie down and hand him the record.
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