Key Matchups And Storylines Week 18: Los Angeles Rams vs San Francisco 49ers
The Rams vs The 49ers (Duh)
If the Los Angeles Rams beat the 49ers this week, they are a lock to win the NFC West for the first time since 2018. Winning the division is great for bragging rights, but a win would also lock them in at the two seed in the NFC. This gives them a better chance at home-field advantage in, at least, the first two rounds of the playoffs. They would also garner a more favorable matchup in the first round; facing either the Eagles or the Saints. There are also a few scenarios that would lead to back-to-back games with the 49ers. But, this all assumes that the Rams win in Week 18.
A loss, along with a Cardinals win, would result in them dropping to the fifth seed where they would face the Cowboys in Dallas. The Cardinals are a 6.5 point favorite to win and in their previous game, Arizona beat Seattle 23-13 without Kyler Murray. All of that to say, the Rams playoff fates are squarely in their own hands.
Dropping to the fifth seed makes the Rams road to the Super Bowl much more difficult. That much is obvious. A loss would mean not hosting a home playoff game (unless they made it to the big game) and a very large possibility of having to win on the road in Green Bay.
(This isn’t a guaranteed matchup, but there is a good chance of it happening, regardless if they are the second or fifth seed).
Beating San Francisco would also take a serious chunk out of the 49ers playoff hopes. The 49ers would be reliant on a Falcons win to get into the playoffs. The Saints are currently 4.5 point favorites to beat the Falcons.
The Rams are favored to win this weekend, but they have also been favored in the last three games, including the game earlier this season that they lost by 21 points. That game was the fifth straight loss to the division rivals. The playoff implications aside; this is a huge game for the Rams. Football teams are made up of people and people’s confidence is boosted when they overcome obstacles. A boost in confidence will go a long way for the Rams as they head into the playoffs.
Sean McVay vs Kyle Shanahan
The parallels between these two coaches are well documented. Considering that, it is no wonder the two are compared and contrasted so often. But, Sean McVay’s five-game losing streak to Kyle Shanahan has catapulted this quasi-fraternal rivalry to near-mythic proportions. With everything that is on the line in the final week of the regular season, would it be an overstatement to say, “It all comes down to this?” Well, yes. Both coaches are still young with long careers ahead of them. If McVay and Shanahan want to, this could continue for another 25 years!
But there is a heightened sense of urgency on the side of the Rams for this game. Most of their games have been hotly contested affairs decided by one score or less. But earlier this season the Rams were put in a hole early and they couldn’t do anything to dig themselves out. The Rams offense could not stay on the field. They went three for 10 on third downs, 0 for two on fourth down and they possessed the ball for just under 21 minutes. On defense more of the same. The Rams could not close out on third and fourth down. And they weren’t much better on first and second down. The 49ers picked up half of their 20 first downs on first or second down
What all this boils down to is the defense was unprepared and the offense was predictable. That is to say, McVay was thoroughly outcoached.
From an offensive perspective, it was that predictability that doomed the Rams. In losses, McVay ran all but 10 plays from 11 personnel (4%) so far this season. In wins, he runs 11 personnel 78 percent of the time. This isn’t to say that 11 personnel is the problem. There are myriad plays the Rams run from this grouping that work, but it illustrates that McVay’s tendency is to go to the tried and true play calls that he knows his offense can run. The problem is that a team that is as familiar with McVay, as the Shanahan 49ers are, will see right through the illusion of complexity. This is compounded when McVay goes conservative to simplify things for his quarterback in high leverage situations.
What the Rams can do to alleviate this is to ensure success on first downs. One thing they could do is lean on high percentage throws on first down. The Rams achieve a successful play 71 percent of the time when they target Tyler Higbee or Odell Beckham Jr. on first down. Compare that to just a 56 percent success rate when they rush Sony Michel or Darrell Henderson. The 49ers defense is one of the better run defenders the Rams have faced this season. This isn’t to say that they should abandon the run as they did in week 10. But having a few passing options will keep the defense guessing on first down and will set up easier opportunities on subsequent downs.
That will help keep the game from getting out of hand. There are a million factors into coaching a winning game and these two have shown the ability to duke it out till the end of the game. Keeping the game within reach is a key for both coaches. The Rams have the firepower to get up on the 49ers, especially against a weak secondary. But in the last game, only one receiver rose to the occasion.
Kupp caught almost 41 percent of the total receptions in week 10. Van Jefferson was targeted seven times for three receptions and two drops. Week 10 was Beckham’s first game with the Rams. He was targeted only three times. Since then he has more than doubled that number in each game. Beckham has caught a touchdown in five of the last six games. Jefferson has flashed as a big-play threat in several games this season.
The true strength of McVay’s offense is this receiving group. Their success will equal the team’s success against the 49ers.
A lot of hay was made over the 49ers running the ball 44 times against the Rams, but it wasn’t simply that they picked up 5.2 yards per rush. It was how Shanahan decided to attack the Rams defense. The 49ers did the most obvious thing on offense. They avoided Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. Ramsey was held to a season-low two targets. Deebo Samuel and George Kittle accounted for 147 of the 182 yards that Jimmy Garappolo threw. Ramsey wasn’t covering them on any of their targets.
Donald was held to season-low, one pressure. But that was only one way they avoided him. Elijah Mitchell was the 49ers leading rusher. He ran the ball 27 times. A majority of those were in the opposite direction of where Donald was lined up.
It isn’t the most sophisticated of approaches, but avoiding two of the best defenders in the league is just plain smart and effective. Donald is hard to avoid because no matter how effectively you run away he is still a threat when pass rushing. Ramsey isn’t hard to avoid. He can only cover one player at a time. Ramsey has only been targeted four times in the last four games against the 49ers. The 49ers will likely continue doing this. That means others in the secondary will have to have better games.
What is the most confounding thing about predicting this matchup is that, for at least the last two years, the Rams have been a much better team. The Rams have been favored in all but one of the last five games and they are favored to win this one as well. What makes this game such a compelling matchup really is the chess match between the head coaches. With a few exceptions, the Rams have better pieces on the board, but for the last few games, Shanahan has known how to use his pieces in innovative and exciting ways. To win, McVay will have to answer in kind.