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Rams clash with rival 49ers in regular season finale | Game Preview

It sure felt like the Los Angeles Rams were building toward a must-win regular season finale against San Francisco, with an opportunity to rip the one-seed from the rival up north.

Instead, two upsets last Sunday tempered the stakes. First, Arizona rallied in Philadelphia, allowing the 49ers to lock in the NFC's top spot. Then, Pittsburgh rained on Seattle's parade, clinching a playoff berth for the Rams before they'd left New Jersey.

No complaints, here. Although it is a tad bittersweet to miss such a high stakes opportunity in Santa Clara.

No matter. Even with key players in bubble wrap, Rams-Niners sends the adrenaline coursing. I'm the type who'd pay to see these two practice squads square off, quite frankly.

Week 18 isn't about earning the six seed versus the seven seed, though that could be determined by the outcome.

Instead, it's about planting a seed.

It's a chance to go to Levi's Stadium and let the 49er Faithful know that the next time Los Angeles visits, the Rams will be ready to dethrone them.

We don't know if that return trip will be next fall or in two weeks or in the NFC Championship game.

But Sunday can serve as a statement, no matter who is or isn't on the field.

Proof of Progress

As I watched them practice this week, I flashed back to spring OTAs and all the growth this team has achieved through their own sweat equity.

A roster that was literally practicing how to practice in May is now resting starters in January having already punched a playoff ticket.

To think back in the spring we'd be rejoicing over Carson Wentz running the show going into Week 18.

You can't predict football. At least not with the Rams!

Take a look through photos of Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua, quarterback Carson Wentz, outside linebacker Byron Young and more Rams players practicing ahead of Sunday's Week 18 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

Healthy Over Rusty

Here's how I would fortify Sean McVay's decision to preserve L.A.'s highest profile players in anticipation of Wild Card Weekend.

The midseason bye was the life raft the made the rally from 3-6 possible. Since that week off, they've played some of the best ball in the NFL. Why should it be any different for a select handful of starters to regroup at the New Year for their next push?

Not only has this team won six of their last seven games, but as a franchise, the Rams are also 6-1 under McVay in the most extreme "rust" case, season-openers. Their average margin of victory in those Week 1 wins since 2017 is +16.8.

So if anything, I'd like to sit the entire starting offense and defense. But that's not how the math works.

The active roster is only 53 deep. Teams are allowed to flex two practice squad players up for gameday without signing them to the active roster (one of which will be returning backup Dresser Winn), so that's a pool of 55 Rams leading into Sunday.

McVay has already announced the seven he doesn't plan to dress (Matthew Stafford, Kyren Williams, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee, Joe Noteboom, Aaron Donald, and Ernest Jones IV). The remaining Rams are your 48 active on game day.

Record Watch

Puka Nacua will start, in pursuit of history.

He needs 4 receptions and 29 receiving yards to break each of those NFL rookie records, hopefully cementing his Offensive Rookie of the Year award in the process.

Nacua also enters the regular season finale with the fourth-most receiving yards of any player in 2013 (1,445), trailing Miami's Tyreek Hill (1,717), Ceedee Lamb in Dallas (1,651), and barely behind A.J. Brown with Philadelphia (1,447).

Assuming the Cowboys beat the Washington Commanders in the early window, that would leave the Eagles with nothing to play for by the time they kick off against the New York Giants. In which case, Brown might be held out, leaving Nacua a path to finishing top-three in the league in his debut campaign.

Meantime, Kyren Williams won't play for the Rams, but according to NFL Research, is nonetheless on track to be the only player in league history to miss four-or-more games yet still finish in the top two (or three, even) in rushing yards.

Christian McCaffrey (1,459) ran away with the rushing title. Williams finishes his second season with 1,144 yards on the ground in 12 games. In pursuit this weekend, James Cook in Buffalo (58 yards behind, 16 games played) and Philadelphia's D'Andre Swift (95 behind, 16 played) are among those in Williams' rear-view mirror.

No one can threaten the Rams back on a per game basis, however. At 95.3 rushing yards per game in 2023, Williams and McCaffrey (91.2), who also won't play in Week 18, are miles ahead of the competition.

Extreme Rams Makeover?

With a win over the lowly Carolina Panthers, Baker Mayfield can guide the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC South title and a home playoff game.

Not bad for a quarterback who was discarded twice in 2022 before resuscitating his career with a positive finish with a Rams roster desperate for a spark.

Thankfully, L.A.'s circumstances this winter are far different, as they prepare to start another former first-round pick turned journeyman in Wentz.

"This is a guy that's played some high-level ball in his career and he believes, and so do I, that he still has a lot of that out there for him," Rams offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said leading into Wentz's first start in Horns. "And so (his teammates) know that, hey, they better do their part because he's going to do his and guys will be ready to go."

Unlike Mayfield, who got a five-game sample-size in McVay's offense, I'm skeptical that the former Eagle, Colt, and Commander can generate enough buzz from four quarters of action on Sunday to draw a starting offer from a quarterback-needy franchise in free agency.

I'd be thrilled to be wrong, though, because that would likely mean a highly entertaining afternoon and a victory for the Rams!


Christian Rozeboom will be equally busy against the 49ers, with fellow off-ball linebacker Ernest Jones getting the week off.

I really enjoyed the Iowa native’s perspective on his defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.

Our guest on Rams Revealed, Rozeboom's advocacy was echoed later in the week by this NFLPA survey, which asked players to rate their coaches, and lists Morris in the top five of NFL defensive coordinators.

Like the Rams linebacker, I am rooting for Morris to get serious consideration – and hopefully offers – for head coaching positions this cycle. While I'll be disappointed for him should nothing pan out, selfishly, I'd be ecstatic for the Rams if coaching continuity was (at long last) an offseason theme.


And finally, the new goal for Los Angeles is to play not once, but twice, this month in Santa Clara. For that to happen, what areas do they need to shore up?

That was a topic of conversation on Between the Horns with D'Marco Farr and Stu Jackson.

Unsurprisingly, the kicking game was our leading concern, as the Rams turn back to Brett Maher, which could be a subplot if they end up in Dallas for Wild Card weekend.

We also detailed how Stafford went from one Pro Bowl honor to three this week, and why that might matter down the road. The fact he got the nod ahead of Jared Goff in the NFC adds intrigue if they end up in Detroit, not that any more would be necessary.

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