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The San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams renew their decades old rivalry Sunday with significant stakes on the table:
If the 49ers win this game they’re in the playoffs. They become the seventh and final NFC entrant into the postseason.
If the Rams win this game they become the NFC West champions. That will give them at least one home playoff game.
So, yeah, kind of a big deal. But this one is about more than that.
This one will test styles. And substance. And the will of the participants.
“It’s going to be kind of a body bag game in my opinion,” Niners tight end George Kittle announced this week.
“Whenever we play them we just try to come out and be as physical as we possibly can, that’s what we’re really good at. We’re one of the most physical offenses in football. Coming off the line with our fullback, tight ends and running backs, and then when our wide receivers decide to go hit safeties in the mouth on a run play to kind of change the game, you have to match the intensity or you have to get out of the way.
“And sometimes guys get out of the way.”
The thing about this series is the Rams, a team known for its fine defense but finesse offense, have gotten out of the way, as Kittle says, a lot because San Francisco has won five consecutive games against them.
And in those games, the 49ers have generally been successful running the football and controlling the line of scrimmage. They’ve also won the turnover battle all five times, and have dominated in time of possession — again, another testament to running the ball and winning on third down.
In the November meeting between the teams, for example, the 49ers rushed for 156 yards. And Los Angeles rushed for 52 yards. The Rams turned it over twice while the 49ers didn’t turn the ball over at all.
And San Francisco kept the ball 39 minutes to 21 minutes for L.A.
Most of that speaks to winning the line of scrimmage and perhaps even hitting harder. And that’s the kind of game the 49ers want to make Sunday all about.
“It’s going to definitely show up this Sunday about who’s the more physical team,” Kittle said.
The Rams, it should be said, are an ornery bunch on defense. That is not a finesse unit. And neither is it a unit that seems intimidated by the prospect of a physical game.
“Since I’ve been here, they’ve had our number,” cornerback Jalen Ramsey admitted this week. “It’s frustrating but they don’t have mind control over us, nothing like that, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s just how the games have went.”
The 49ers spent much of the past week figuring out whether starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo would be able to play this game as he practiced with chipped bones in the thumb of his throwing hand that makes throwing the ball painful.
The injury is called an evulsion fracture and while coach Kyle Shanahan refused to say who he plans to start, reporters have been asking everyone they can whether they can share how Garoppolo has looked in practice.
“Jimmy looks like Jimmy to me,” receiver Deebo Samuel said. “Same confidence, same ball, same energy, same everything. I don’t think he took a step backward.”
Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel had a little fun with the line of questions about evulsion fractures during his media session.
“I’m actually I’m one of the foremost experts. I wrote my thesis on that very topic, so nothing has surprised me,” McDaniel joked at first.
“No, he’s a tough guy and it is cool to see a guy try to work through pain. But he’s also trying to be smart and he knows he has to be responsible to the football team because we’ve all worked, all of his teammates have worked in blood, sweat, and tears to get to this point. We’re in Game 17 with an opportunity to extend our season and so he doesn’t take that lightly.”
Shanahan has said if Garoppolo is 100 percent, he’s the starter but he’s obviously not 100 percent. So the coach would have to weigh how product Garoppolo could be despite his injury versus whether to start rookie Trey Lance, as he did last week.
It’s also possible both players see action.
Lance, by the way, was good in San Francisco’s 23-7 victory over Houston last week — passing for 249 yards and 2 TDs, and also running for 31 yards — in his first game since Week 11.
“A thing that really impressed me was, wow, this guy hadn’t been on the field in a while,” McDaniel said of Lance. “And I was just reminded today that he has started three games in two years. So the most impressive thing was that all of that build-up to get his opportunity, how he handled the pressure and how he showed all the fans, and really the world, what we’ve been seeing on a day-in, day-out basis.
“And that’s a progression and improvement, a guy that is continuing to get better day-in, day-out.”
That’s all great but everyone understands the 49ers offense will go as their run game goes. San Francisco has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in each of their five consecutive victories over Los Angeles except one — and in that one the 49ers rushed for 99 yards.
That kind of success breeds confidence.
“We just have to convert on third down,” running back Elijah Mitchell said, “and we should be able to run the ball.”
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