Game Preview: Rams Look to Clinch Bye, Sweep NFC West Against the 49ers

The Rams (12-3) will wrap up the regular season against the 49ers (4-11) on Sunday afternoon in the L.A. Coliseum.

Los Angeles posted its second-highest margin of victory of the season against the 49ers in Week 7, beating the upstate rivals 39-10 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Los Angeles won the game behind 4.0 sacks from defensive tackle Aaron Donald and three touchdowns — two rushing, one receiving — from running back Todd Gurley.

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If the Rams are successful against the Niners in the season finale, L.A. will clinch a first-round playoff bye and sweep the NFC West. Since the NFL’s realignment in 2002, just four teams from the NFC have swept their respective division — three of those teams went on to the Super Bowl.

The Rams have finished 5-1 twice in the division since 2002, but are yet to complete a 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,” head coach Sean McVay said this week. “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.”

Quarterback Jared Goff also spoke about the importance of Sunday’s game — which, for much of the season, was shaping up to be a restful Week 17 similar to last year.

“Obviously, we know we've got more to play for, but we're treating this week like a playoff game, like being in the playoffs for us,” Goff said. “If we win, we get that [No.] 2 seed locked up and do what we have to do."

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If the Rams cap their season sweep against the Niners, Los Angeles will be two wins away from Super Bowl 53.

The Rams sacked 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard seven times in their Week 7 meeting. In one of their stronger defensive performances of the season, Donald and company limited

the 49ers to just 228 yards of total offense and forced four turnovers in the game. But the Rams defense is preparing for a different 49ers signal caller in Week 17 — undrafted rookie quarterback, Nick Mullens.

The Niners’ starter since Week 9, Mullens has thrown 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions, going 3-4 in seven starts.

“He’s savvy,” cornerback Marcus Peters said. “He really ain’t got [anything] to lose and he’s playing like it too. He’s just out there paying good football and doing whatever he can do to make a play.”

Mullens has moved the ball well in 2018 since taking the job from Beathard, who was the next man up when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went down in Week 3. The Southern Miss product has thrown for 1,995 yards in seven games and is completing 63 percent of his passes.

On the other end of many of Mullens passes is blossoming star tight end George Kittle. Kittle has been the go-to guy in San Francisco’s injury-ridden offense in 2018. Early this week, the 49ers ruled running back Matt Breida and wide receiver Dante Pettis out for Sunday’s game. As of Thursday, wideout Marquise Goodwin was yet to practice and was deemed questionable early in the week with a calf injury.

The Rams will, however, see Kittle on the Coliseum’s turf, standing in the way of an ideal playoff position and a historic run through the division. McVay suggested early in the week that the tight end is part of what makes the Niners’ offense go.

“[K]ittle's a threat to take it to the house every single time he touches the football — made a lot of explosives and I think it's a credit to both their system, but then also, George's talent and the production, I think they kind of go hand-in-hand," McVay said.

Kittle is No. 2 among all tight ends in both total receiving yards and yards receiving per game (81.9).

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips believes his unit is trending in the right direction ahead of its final test against Mullens and Kittle. The Los Angeles defense, which has now featured cornerback Aqib Talib for four-straight weeks, has held offenses to 312 total yards per game and generated six takeaways since the team’s Week 12 bye.

“Just trusting the process,” Peters said when asked what’s led to an uptick in defensive production. “With just coming in the year, we knew we had a bunch of big-name players who made big plays around this league and we just needed to find a way to make it mesh. It was up and down because it was a new team. I just commend all of the players on the defense, [who] trusted and believed in each other.”

On offense for the Rams, running back Todd Gurley’s status remains day-to-day as gameday approaches. The league’s leader in touchdowns was scratched from last week’s contest following a pregame workout, and Gurley is yet to practice in preparation for Week 17.

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“We want to do what's best for Todd most importantly and what's best for Todd is also what's best for our football team,” McVay said early in the week. “We don't want to do anything where we're putting him in harm’s way if we feel like it could be something where we're putting him at risk.”

Gurley, who was equally adamant about listening to his body and staying from harm's way in his Thursday press conference, expressed confidence in his replacement acquired last week, running back C.J. Anderson.

“Knew he was a good runner,” Gurley said four days after Adderson’s 167-yard rushing performance in Arizona. “Just one of those unfortunate situations, got let go and now he's here. He's ballin’ out, he's been doing what he's been doing his whole career."

McVay said he expects Anderson to play a role on his team as it attempts to regain its stride entering the playoffs. Goff joined Anderson in the coming out party in Arizona. The young quarterback entered Week 16 completing just 55.4 percent of his passes since the Week 12 bye, before posting his second-best completion percentage of the season against the Cardinals, hitting on 79 percent of his passes.

The 216-yard, one-touchdown outing in Arizona isn’t quite something to write home about for the former Cal Bear, who is 342 yards from the Rams’ single-season franchise passing record. But the performance was enough to leave Goff with a positive taste in his mouth after weeks of passing woes.

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“I felt comfortable, felt good,” Goff said, reflecting on his performance that helped steer the Rams back into the win column. “I thought we protected really well and thought we, obviously, ran the ball well. Guys were open, guys were making plays. I felt accurate. We felt good.”

With QB1 feeling good and an energized defense, McVay has reason to feel positively about his team heading into the season’s final test — as long as there’s attentive preparation throughout the week.

“Everybody doing the little things the right way – all three phases,” McVay said. “If we do that, we know it's going to be a great challenge, but we expect to see our preparation throughout the week show up on Sunday and guys got to be locked in.”

If there’s any member of the Rams who is locked in entering the Coliseum on Sunday, it’s defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald enters Week 17 with the chance to put a cherry on top of L.A.’s season by capturing a 17-year-old NFL record.

The defensive tackle needs 3.5 sacks against the Niners to pass former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record 22.5 sacks. And while 3.5 sacks would be a huge day for any pass-rusher, the league’s leader in sacks has routinely posted multi-sack games in his fifth pro season. In fact, Donald has posted his three highest sack totals against NFC West opponents, and his highest sack total of the season (4.0) against the 49ers.

A repeat performance would launch No. 99 into NFL history.

“You never know what can happen,” Donald said on Thursday — admitting he had to fight back tears following his Week 16 record-breaking performance. “But I’m just going to play the game and when plays present themselves try to take advantage of it and just help my team win.”

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