The Los Angeles Rams are quite a familiar team to the San Francisco 49ers. In fact, Sunday's game will be the third time the divisional foes face each other this season.
"It makes for a little bit more fun of a football game, because it's truly what it's about," head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Everyone's going to go out there and a lot is on the line. We're going to play as hard as we can, they're going to play as hard as they can and we are going to see who makes the most plays and who makes the least mistakes."
The first time San Francisco matched up against the Rams was in Week 10, where the 49ers came out on top 31-10 in a clean win at home. The next was on the road in Week 18, where the team fought for a spot in the playoffs, and the 49ers barely escaped SoFi Stadium with a 27-24 win in overtime.
The 49ers have continuously swept the Rams in three-straight seasons and hold a six-game win streak over Los Angeles. If the team reaches their seventh-straight win on Sunday, it will earn them a trip to Super Bowl LVI.
The question is, what worked best for the 49ers in their Week 10 and Week 18 wins against the Los Angeles Rams?
1. Rushing the Passer
"Defense wins championships," the old adage states.
When San Francisco's defensive unit first faced Matthew Stafford in Week 10, they managed to bring him down twice. Edge rusher Nick Bosa notched one tackle and 1.0 sack on the night, and defensive lineman Arden Key finished the game with two tackles and another sack. Week 18 is where the 49ers pass rush exploded. Key and linebacker Fred Warner combined to bring down Stafford, Bosa registered a 0.5 sack, D.J. Jones notched 1.0 sack and Arik Armstead earned a career-high 2.5 sacks on the day.
"With the pass rush and just overall, our guys just continued to get better at working together," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "So when we work our stunts, our games, just collectively as a unit, guys just continue to get better."
It's not just one man the Rams offense need to look out for, but the entire San Francisco defensive line serves as a threat to Stafford and Co. Five 49ers playmakers were able to get the quarterback down for a total of five times in the Week 18 season finale, and Stafford was hit for a total of 18 times. That Sunday, Los Angeles' passing game was held to only 201 yards, compared to San Francisco's 314 passing yards.
2. Physical Offense
The 49ers receivers won't go down without a fight, and it's proven in the amount of yards after the catch the team has recorded. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel led all receivers in the league with 10.4 yards after catch per reception.
In Week 10's Monday night game against the Rams, Samuel's toughness was never more crucial. On a fourth-and-six play in the fourth quarter, Samuel caught an 11-yard pass surrounded by Rams defenders. However, the receiver didn't settle for the first down, and turned upfield and into the end zone for a gritty touchdown.
"It was abnormal how physical he was, even when there was nowhere to go," Shanahan said. "Guys run hard, but when he had nowhere to go, he looked for someone to impose his will on before he finished everything. And that's a guy who's not doing it just because he was asked, that's a guy doing it because he's probably been doing it since he was five when his dad gave him the nickname 'Deebo,' watching him doing it in the backyard against everybody. That's just who he is."
Whether it's after the catch or at the snap, the 49ers know how to run the ball. San Francisco rushed for a combined 291 yards in their two previous meetings against the Rams this season. Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell led the team with 91 rushing yards in Week 10 and 85 yards in the regular season finale.
3. SWARMing the Ball
At the beginning of the 2021 season, Ryans introduced a new slogan to the 49ers defensive defensive squad: S.W.A.R.M. The acronym stands for "special work ethic and relentless mindset," and the mantra has been the theme of San Francisco's play so far this year.
In the 49ers matchups against the Rams this season, game-defining moments happened during turnover plays. In Week 10, defensive back Jimmie Ward registered two interceptions of Stafford in the first quarter alone, returning one for a 27-yard touchdown and marking the first multi-interception game of his career. The turnovers didn't stop there, and in Week 18 cornerback Emmanuel Moseley made one interception of Stafford, and rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas picked off another in overtime, sealing the win for the 49ers and marking the first interception of his career.
"We corners, we think the ball doesn't belong to us. But no – if you're there, the ball is yours," Thomas said. "I look back on all the stuff I got beat on, and I've always been there. I just needed that 'ball is mine' mindset, and that's starting to come along. The more reps I get, the better I get."
Swarming the ball will be a key aspect of the defense's performance, and the 49ers will be challenged against some of the league's most talented receivers in Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. The 49ers secondary managed to limit Beckham Jr. to only 18 yards in each game, and their "ball is mine" mindset must stay consistent for a win in the championship game.