One team is 9-2. The other 2-9. But whenever the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams meet, you can throw the records by the wayside. It's an NFC West divisional meeting with plenty on the line besides pride. The 49ers enter Sunday's contest extra-rested off a Thanksgiving night loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Thursday. Meanwhile, the Rams are hoping to bounce back from a home loss to the Arizona Cardinals. With the two teams set to meet twice in the next five weeks, let's examine five keys to the 1:15 p.m. kick-off set to take place at Candlestick Park. **
1. Season on the Brink
Perhaps there's only one key to Sunday's game for the 49ers: Win. Win and the 49ers are in the playoffs as NFC West division champs for the first time since 2002. But there's more to it than just clinching; the 49ers are in competition for playoff seeding with other top NFC teams. At 9-2 and the NFC's current No. 2 seed behind the 11-0 Green Bay Packers, the 49ers need to keep pace ahead of the New Orleans Saints, who are currently 8-3. In the event of a tie at the end of the regular season, the NFL's tiebreaker is head-to-head score, then conference records. Beating St. Louis on Sunday will keep the 49ers perfect record in the division intact. The 49ers had their season end for all intents and purposes in Week 16 last season, when they lost in St. Louis to get knocked out of contention for the division crown. However, the roles have been somewhat reversed this time around. The 49ers began last season 1-5, while the Rams started this year 0-6. Since the slow start, St. Louis shocked the Saints at home and also beat the Cleveland Browns on the road. Now, the Rams will look to play the role of spoiler on Sunday. The 49ers can't clinch the division with a loss, after the Seattle Seahawks improved to 5-7 with a Thursday night win over the Philadelphia Eagles. So in the end, it all comes down to winning. Good thing Candlestick Park is the place where the 49ers can clinch. Since Dec. 1, 2010, San Francisco has a .875 winning percentage (7-1), ranking tied for second with the New England Patriots for the highest home winning percentage in the NFL.
2. First Half Focus
Teams have been hard-pressed to score touchdowns against the 49ers defense this season. It's been even harder to do it in the first half of recent games. The unit hasn't allowed a touchdown in the first half of their last five outings, the longest streak in franchise history and the longest streak in the NFL since the Dallas Cowboys posted five consecutive games in 2008. Points in the game's early stages will be important on Sunday. The Rams have been outscored 145-79 in the first half of their 11 games. St. Louis failed to score an offensive touchdown before halftime against the Cardinals in a 23-20 home loss last week. Recently signed punt returner Nick Miller's 88-yard score supplied the only first-half touchdown for St. Louis. Meanwhile, the 49ers have outscored opponents 120-61 in the first half of their games this season. In the second quarter alone, the 49ers have a 91-32 point advantage over opponents. Furthermore, San Francisco has started every third quarter at home under Jim Harbaugh with a lead, outscoring opponents 89-19 in the first half at home. While the 49ers have four, fourth-quarter comebacks under their belt this season, getting an early advantage has been a big part of their recipe for winning, especially at Candlestick Park.
3. When the 49ers Met Lloyd (Again)
Remember Brandon Lloyd? The current Rams wideout was a former 49ers fourth-round pick (No. 124 overall) in the 2003 NFL Draft. Lloyd began the season in Denver where he caught 19 passes for 282 yards with no touchdowns. Lloyd, however, was traded midseason to spark a St. Louis passing game that lost its leading receiver from 2010, Danny Amendola, to a season-ending elbow injury. Since his arrival in the Midwest, Lloyd has become the lead target instantaneously. He's caught 31 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns. In November alone, Lloyd supplied all three of the Rams' offensive touchdowns. Quarterback Sam Bradford, who's been hobbled in recent weeks by a sprained ankle, will have another receiver back in the lineup. Danario Alexander could return to the lineup this week after missing the past five games with a hamstring injury. The Rams receiving duo have not played together since Alexander's injury on Oct. 23 against the Dallas Cowboys.
4. #GoreWatch Pt. 4
First, it was at 149. Then, it was 149. Next, it was 61. Now, it's 22. What is it, you might ask? It's none other than the yards needed for Frank Gore to become the franchise's all-time leading rusher. Gore has seemingly had three realistic chances to break the record, but has a great chance to do it the fourth time around. If Gore rushes for 22 yards against the Rams on Sunday (Gore has averaged 84.3 yards in nine career games against the Rams) he'll surpass the 7,344 yards totaled by Hall of Famer Joe "The Jet" Perry for most rushing yards in 49ers history. Gore, who's rushed for 909 yards on 203 carries already this year, will face a St. Louis defense which allows 159.0 yards per game (32nd in the NFL). Against the Rams defense last week, Beanie Wells set the Cardinals franchise single-game rushing record with 228 yards on 27 carries. So while Gore's quest to become the 49ers rushing king has been in reach for the past four weeks, the stage is now set for Gore to do it at home, in front of his adoring fans, too.
5. Pass Pros
Both offensive line units are going to be under the microscope for the 49ers and Rams. St. Louis has given up 39 sacks this season, the most in the NFL by three. Bradford, who's missed two starts because of an ankle injury, has been sacked 33 times, most in the NFL, too. St. Louis has reshuffled its line several times this season, including inserting former 49ers reserve linemen Tony Wragge into the lineup. The Rams gave up two sacks to the Cardinals last week and look to build off the performance against a 49ers defense that has registered 25 sacks on the year. But in the same way the Rams pass blocking will be dissected on Sunday, same goes for the 49ers, especially after giving up nine sacks to the Ravens last Thursday. St. Louis has a formidable defensive front, led by defensive end Chris Long who leads the team 10 sacks. First-round pick Robert Quinn has also been a force in the pass rushing department, registering 5.0 sacks in a limited role. Whoever is successful in getting to the other team's passer looms large in the game's outcome.