Game Preview: Division play begins in a big way with Rams-49ers on Sunday Night Football

The Rams are one pass interference penalty away from 5-0.

Had Samuel Sloman connected on a 29-yard field goal against Dallas and an extra point against Washington, Los Angeles would not have trailed for a single snap across four wins over the NFC East.

Los Angeles has been very good. Can they be great?

We're about to find out. Division play is here, and this is 49ers Week.

Now or Never

At the risk of leading with the kicker, let's complete the thought on Sloman.

I asked Sean McVay this week if he felt compelled to audition replacements yet.

"He's had some issues, but when you look around the league that's kind of been a consistent theme for a lot of these kickers that have had a lot of success," McVay said. "I don't think you want to overreact, but I do want to see some more consistent performances."

He's not wrong. Just ask Michael Badgley.

Kansas City's Harrison Butker has missed three extra points this season. Our old friend Greg Zuerlein has shanked a couple, too.

But there comes a point where if you believe your offense and defense are capable of being special – and the Rams should have every confidence in that possibility – then as a head coach you owe it to the other members of the roster to hold the kicker as accountable as all the other positions.

On Between the Horns, I made Sloman my fantasy pick of the week, because it feels like now or never for the rookie seventh-round selection.

Golden Gauntlet

Meanwhile, the 49ers have already matched their loss total from 2019.

Now, they enter the most difficult stretch of any 2020 NFL schedule: Rams, at New England and Seattle, home to Green Bay, at New Orleans and LA, then versus Buffalo.

Each of those opponents carry a winning record. Combined, they are 26-7.

And there's a contending roster on injured reserve right now for the 49ers: Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, just to name a few.

If the Rams can win this game, the Niners would effectively be out of the playoff picture in mid-October. Stunning, but an opportunity L.A. just cannot miss.

Desperation is Dangerous

And yet, there are two results I can't get out of my head.

The first is last year's loss to San Francisco at the Coliseum. The 49ers, who didn't have their starting fullback or either first-string offensive tackle, were also playing on a short week.

But they mauled the Rams.

So no matter how depleted this Niners roster looks, I won't believe they're anything other than capable – especially with this Kyle Shanahan coaching staff.

Secondly, I'm old enough to remember when San Francisco dismantled the New York Giants 36-9. That was three weeks ago. With Nick Mullens at quarterback. The same opponent the Rams struggled to put away until deep in the fourth quarter at SoFi Stadium.

So whether Jimmy Garoppolo is 100 percent or not – whether he even plays – there's no sense in expecting anything other than the 49ers very best on Sunday Night Football.

Just @ Me Next Time

Jared Goff's 5.9 Intended Air Yards per throw is the lowest of any quarterback since 2016, and yet the Rams are one of the most productive and efficient offenses in the NFL so far.

Analyst Josh Norris pointed out this and more before posing the question, "What is your conclusion?"

Throwing a bit of shade on the birthday boy? Probably.

But I'd like to take a crack at answering.

My conclusion is that the Rams have played from in front for the majority of the season. That despite the records of their NFC East opponents, the defensive fronts they've faced have been lethal. That McVay has therefore taken a lot of the risk out of the offense to protect his offensive line and quarterback while leveraging the offense's strengths (scheme, route separation, quarterback accuracy, and yards after catch).

Nothing wrong with that, as far as I'm concerned.

The rival up 101 knows a bit about West Coast offense and how system quarterbacks can become champions and Hall of Famers, too.

The Rams were back on the practice field in preparation for their first divisional matchup against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football.

Mouths to Feed

The Rams are top 10 in the NFL in offensive plays this season, and there still aren't enough footballs to go around.

Look at this list of studs who still don't have a touchdown in 2020:

Cam Akers

Josh Reynolds

Van Jefferson

Gerald Everett (receiving)

The Defense (four last season)

Reynolds, who has seven in his career, is the one who stands out most, considering the opportunities he's been getting – playing more than half the snaps in every game this season. Everett has at least two scoring receptions in each of his Rams seasons. And with Akers, it's only a matter of time and red zone touches.

We'll keep an eye on this ever-dwindling list.

Why Bother?

An interesting back-and-forth with Rams superfan and PFF Fantasy Analyst Sosa Kremenjas produced this Jalen Ramsey tidbit:

Week 1 vs Dallas: 81 yards allowed in coverage

Since: 27 yards allowed in coverage

Teams aren't testing the highest-paid corner in the game. Will that change in Week 6, and where will Ramsey align?

Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Brandon Staley compared his star defender – Star is literally the name of a role in this defense – to LeBron James and the position-less brand of basketball in the NBA.

That's a Rapp

Ramsey's only interception as a Ram came in Santa Clara last December. But the more lasting memories from that loss were the 3rd & 16 busts on Garoppolo's game-winning drive, the latter of which did not end well between Ramsey and Taylor Rapp.

It's unfortunate Jordan Fuller misses this showdown with a stinger that will sideline him until after the bye week. However, that injury allows for a Tosh.O-level redemption opportunity for the former second-round selection Rapp.

No Room for Underwear

It's a short trip up to Silicon Valley; for sure John Johnson isn't packing underwear, because he has to pack his defense.

The 49ers have featured prominently in Johnson's career narrative. The shoulder injury he sustained against them last October at the Coliseum cost him the rest of 2019, including the rematch where his presence – see directly above regarding coverage busts – would have been invaluable.

Going back another year, Johnson's highest-graded career game came in 2018 at San Francisco, where he had this remarkable interception.

Might he be a difference-maker against George Kittle and a struggling 49ers offense?

99 Problems

I'm no fan of "on pace for" statistics.

For instance, when a major leaguer homers twice on Opening Day, my favorite tweets are the ones that read, "He's on pace for 324 bombs this year."

So we're not here to tell you that Aaron Donald is on pace for an NFL record 24 sacks.

But it is tantalizing to consider that for all his greatness, the All-Pro has never been known for fast starts. In fact, his previous high-water mark through five weeks had been 3.5 in 2015.

After his four-bagger in Washington, now No. 99 returns to Levi's, site of his other four-sack masterpiece, to play his 100th career game.

Here's to 100 more.

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