Playoff-bound Rams go for NFC West sweep against Niners
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Although the Los Angeles Rams already wrapped up their second straight NFC West title four weeks ago, they’re embracing the chance to rub it in.
The Rams (12-3) will go for a six-game sweep of their three divisional opponents Sunday when they host the San Francisco 49ers (4-11). A win also clinches the No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye, leaving Los Angeles with no shortage of motivation heading into the Coliseum.
“That’s huge to show that,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff said of the potential sweep. “To truly win the division with our record, but really win the division with our games against our division opponents, to be 6-0 would be saying something, for sure. That really means more.”
West Coast supremacy matters to everyone associated with the Rams during the franchise’s quest to rebuild its LA fan base heading into a new stadium in 2020.
The Rams are 9-2 against San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona since coach Sean McVay took over last season, and they’ve only lost once in a game that mattered. McVay rested his starters for a 34-13 season-finale loss to the Niners last year, likely depriving Todd Gurley of the NFL rushing title and possibly affecting Los Angeles’ momentum heading to the postseason.
San Francisco won’t get a break this weekend: Chicago could steal the Rams’ first-round bye if the Bears beat Minnesota and the Rams lose to the Niners, so Los Angeles has every reason to not let up.
“It would say a lot,” McVay said of the Rams’ potential NFC West sweep. “To be able to accomplish that at home would mean a lot, because there’s three tough division opponents that we go against twice a year. To be able to do that, and then what that also means is being able to secure a first-round bye, that’s a big deal.”
While Gurley could miss his second straight game with a minor knee injury, the Rams likely will be using every other healthy player against the Niners, whose lengthy list of injury absences includes running back Matt Breida and receiver Dante Pettis.
The 49ers are wrapping up their fourth consecutive losing season and their fifth straight non-playoff season since making their third straight NFC title game in January 2014, but coach Kyle Shanahan remains optimistic and focused heading into another meeting with McVay, his friend and fellow offensive mastermind.
“We’ve been disappointed in our year, but we also know this isn’t ending for us,” Shanahan said. “We’re trying to build something and trying to turn this place around. We’ve got a lot of guys in here who want to be a part of that. Players, coaches, personnel guys. So even though this year is coming to an end for us, we know it has a lot to do with next year, and guys are trying to prove they want to be a part of that.”
Here are more things to watch in the season finale:
Aaron Donald has an outside chance to make history. The Rams’ dominant defensive tackle is three sacks shy of matching Michael Strahan’s NFL record of 22½ sacks. That’s a tall order for the undersized lineman, but Donald tends to record his sacks in bunches, getting two or more sacks in seven games while going without a sack in six games. He got three last week against Arizona, and he got a whopping four in the Rams’ first meeting with the Niners this season. With even two sacks in the finale, he would be the second player to record eight multi-sack games in a season, joining Reggie White in 1987.
San Francisco tight end George Kittle heads into the final game in position to set a record for the most prolific season ever at the position. Kittle has 1,228 yards receiving this season and needs 100 to pass Rob Gronkowski (2011) for most ever in a season by a tight end. Kittle is not alone in pursuit, with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce even closer with 1,274 yards.
Even if Gurley doesn’t sit out, the Rams might give some of his workload to veteran C.J. Anderson, who is fitting right in with his new team. The sixth-year pro rushed for 167 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in his Rams debut last week at Arizona.
Nick Mullens has impressed his coaches in his half-season as starter. Mullens’ 1,995 yards passing are the third most since the merger through seven career games, trailing only Patrick Mahomes and Cam Newton. He also has thrown for at least 220 yards in every start, tied for the longest streak in San Francisco history behind a nine-gamer for Joe Montana in 1985-86. “He’s played very well and gotten better, to me, each game he’s played,” Shanahan said. “It’s just about taking it to another level. How much better can you get? How much more consistent can you get?”
The Niners will finish their season with their fourth-string running back carrying the load. Starter Jerick McKinnon tore up his knee a week before the opener, third-stringer Raheem Mostert broke his arm on Nov. 1 and now Breida is out with another ankle injury. Jeff Wilson Jr. has 314 yards from scrimmage the past four games as Breida has been in and out of the lineup with the bad ankle.
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow in Santa Clara, California, contributed to this report.