49ers vs. Rams: Playoffs or Bust

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When the San Francisco 49ers enter Sofi Stadium to take on the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday, the stakes will be clear: win and make the playoffs, or lose and go home.

Sure, it gets a bit more complicated than that. For example, if the Atlanta Falcons beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the Niners are in the playoffs regardless of the result in LA.

But the 49ers can’t rely on other teams to get it done. There’s no question they’re looking at this game as a must-win for their playoff-hopes.

Luckily, the Rams are a team the 49ers have had lots of recent success against. San Francisco is currently riding a 5-game win-streak against Los Angeles, including a home victory this season.

Will the 49ers extend that win-streak and their season in the process? Let’s find out.

Keys to the Game

1. The QB Question

The biggest question overshadowing this game is the 49ers’ plan at quarterback versus the Rams. Jimmy Garoppolo has been out with a thumb injury since the Titans game, and while he may be physically ready to go Sunday, two weeks of missed practice may take its toll on his performance.

While rookie QB Trey Lance put up solid numbers last week against the Houston Texans, the Rams are a whole different story. If Lance does get the start Sunday, he’ll be facing one of the best defenses he’s seen so far in his NFL career.

Needless to say, head coach Kyle Shanahan has an important choice to make for Sunday. Start Jimmy Garoppolo, who gives you the veteran experience but may not be fully healed from his thumb injury. Or start a healthy Trey Lance coming off his first career win — but, effectively throwing him to the wolves against a Super Bowl contender in the Rams.

2. Individual Performances

To win, the 49ers need several position groups to step up. First and foremost: the left tackle Trent Williams and the rest of the offensive line. The Rams feature Aaron Donald on their front seven, by far the best defensive tackle in the league. To contain him the 49ers need top-tier O-line play.

They also need another big game on the ground from running back Elijah Mitchell. He’s been a workhorse this season, recently setting a rookie rushing record for the Niners with 878 yards. Historically, the 49ers have had success running the ball against this Rams front, so they’ll need their top rushers — including Deebo Samuel — to show up to get the win.

Finally, the 49ers defense, which has been playing at an elite level lately, needs to continue to do just that. The Niners D has been excellent at forcing 3 and outs and punts, which takes the pressure off the offense to score immediately. Playing against Rams stars like Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald, the 49ers offense is sure to make mistakes. Solid play on the defensive side will help cover up those mistakes by preventing scoring.

3. The COVID List

After miraculously avoiding COVID issues all season, the pandemic has finally reared its head in the Niners locker room. With such an important matchup upcoming, this couldn’t come at a worse time.

Jimmie Ward, K’Waun Williams, Dontae Johnson, Ambry Thomas, and Deommodore Lenoir all tested positive this week. All of these names are members of an already-thin secondary.

As of the day before the game, every player above besides Lenoir has been re-activated and cleared to go for Sunday. Still, time will tell if more positive COVID tests plague the 49ers within the next day, or possibly during the playoffs.

Closing Thoughts

The 49ers have a chance to clinch a playoff spot on Sunday, and that’s an exciting prospect. However, they’re going to have to prove it against a tough division rival. Even tougher is the fact that they’re starting quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo is far from 100%.

This week is an opportunity for the 49ers to show they belong in the playoffs. Let’s see if they have what it takes.

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