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Payback and playoff hopes on the line at Levi's

I spent most of this week trying to arrive at the best way to frame the final two weeks of 2019 for the Los Angeles Rams.

Four outcomes have to break their way to play into January, and two of those are completely beyond their control. So, let's focus on the two they can determine.

There's still an opportunity to beat every team in the division at least once and finish 4-2 in the NFC West. Were that to happen, you could fairly say the Rams were one missed 44-yard field goal in Seattle away from going 5-1 in the NFL's best division.

Against one of the league's toughest schedules, L.A. can string together a third consecutive winning campaign and a third straight 10-win season. Those benchmarks of sustained success have not been attained by this franchise since the Greatest Show on Turf.

Ultimately, closing with two wins against the 49ers and Cardinals may not be enough to play into January.

But in my estimation, 10-6 would clinch a successful season.

End Game

Rare is the opportunity to start this column with a tight end comparison, so let's go for it.

Last week against the Falcons, San Francisco's George Kittle passed Mike Ditka for the most receiving yards by a tight end in his first three NFL seasons.

Which is cool, but over the past three weeks the Pro Bowler has been outgained by one, Tyler Higbee, by a whopping 116 yards.

The Rams tight end has thrived in teammate Gerald Everett's absence. So has Johnny Mundt, in a blocking capacity. With Everett back, one of the most intriguing components of the Rams stretch run could be exploring whether or not all three can co-exist in Sean McVay's offense.

As for Kittle, since he's the primary threat for San Francisco and runs 6-foot-4, I wonder if there isn't a way to get Jalen Ramsey over the top of him whenever he's detached and especially in known passing situations?

Don't Overthink It

As much as we like to find nuance and next-generation metrics to explain how teams win and lose, in football the answer is almost always staring you right in the face: turnover margin.

The Rams are now minus-6 on the season, compared to plus-5 for the 49ers. That spread of 11 extra possessions over the course of 14 games can explain a sizable portion of their difference in fortunes.

And since the quarterback is most responsible for taking care of the ball, it's no coincidence L.A. is 3-0 when Jared Goff is turnover free and 5-6 in all other games.

Paradoxically, the Rams won the turnover battle in Week 6 versus the Niners, but an avalanche of pressure smothered Goff and led to the least productive day of this season and one of the worst of his career.

The Los Angeles Rams practice ahead of their Week 16 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

A Dud In Dallas

According to NFL Matchup, this Week 16 matchup features two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. The 49ers have more such gains than any team in the NFL, so the Rams will need chunk plays to keep up. 

But as you know, last week in Arlington, the L.A. offense sputtered for the better part of three quarters against the first-team Dallas defense. Only two snaps qualified as "explosive" against the Cowboys.

Lack of Sacks

After notching 44 through the first 11 games, the 49ers only have three sacks over the past three games. (Though they did get a ton of pressure on Matt Ryan last week.)

Injuries opposite Nick Bosa have been the primary culprit. Edge rusher Dee Ford is out again this week with a bad hamstring, and others like Ronald Blair and Damontre Moore have landed on injured reserve. Perhaps that's why the 49ers put in a waiver claim on Terrell Suggs this week (he landed with Kansas City).

The Rams just saw a seven-game stretch of at least three sacks come to an end, failing to bring Dak Prescott down even once.

However, Niners starting center Weston Richburg is done for the year with a knee injury and right guard Mike Person is questionable with a bad neck.

If San Francisco is down two starters on the interior, does that open the door for Aaron Donald to do what he did a year ago in Santa Clara? Falcons Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett gave them headaches last week.

No Excuses

All this injury talk is a great reminder that perhaps the best testament to what the 49ers have accomplished this season is their wins-to-injured reserve ratio.

With 15 players on IR, and several others missing time along the way, the 49ers have been one of the least healthy teams in the NFL. Yet here they are, two wins away from clinching the NFC's top seed.

Sherman Cornering the Market

Since rush and cover go hand-in-hand, it's no accident that the San Francisco pass defense has been a bit leaky lately.

The Niners haven't intercepted a pass in five straight games, and according to ESPN, during that span have allowed a league-worst 77 Total QBR.

However, this week, the return of Pro Football Focus' No. 2-ranked corner Richard Sherman should help. With his fifth Pro Bowl honor, the Compton product earned a league-high $1 million incentive this week and increased his 2020 base salary by another million. Shout out to his better half.

Broken, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Last week, there were more broken tackles than blue jeans inside AT&T Stadium.

After allowing Dallas running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to each rush for more than 100 yards in Week 15, what a bounce-back test for the Rams defense this week at Levi's Stadium.

The Niners are on pace for over 20 rushing scores this season, something they haven't done since 1994. And their 2,300 rushing yards pace is a mark they haven't hit in over two decades.

With Kittle and tight end Ross Dwelley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk leading the way, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert have run roughshod.

A Season For Giving

Since the Rams last saw Jimmy Garoppolo, his big-time throws are way up and his turnovers are down.

Through his first 11 starts this season, Garoppolo had 14 giveaways. In the past four weeks, against a gauntlet that included road games in Baltimore and New Orleans, he lost one fumble and threw just one interception.

Perhaps he's due for a couple giveaways on Saturday.

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