Rams have made gains — enough to win?

Here is my Saturday column previewing the upcoming 49ers-Rams game.

SANTA CLARA – If the 49ers lose to the Rams on Sunday, you can forget about the 49ers.

The 49ers currently cling to the sixth and final NFC playoff seed. The 49ers can’t afford to lose to the Rams and fall behind in the race for the final Wild Card spot.

The Rams have improved since the 49ers embarrassed them in St. Louis Week 4. The Rams actually have a running game now. Since they gained just 18 yards on 19 carries against the 49ers earlier this year, the Rams have rushed for 1,063 yards and 4.9 yards per carry.

And they can stop the run, too. The past four games when their defense has had a full week of rest, they have held opponents to a minuscule 2.6 yards per carry.

The Rams lost their starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, and that seems to have been a blessing. Bradford couldn’t throw deep (58 passer rating on passes more than 20 yards downfield this season) and he couldn’t convert third downs (80 passer rating on third downs). The Rams’ backup QB, 30-year-old Kellen Clemens, has excelled on deep passes (118 passer rating) and third downs (134 passer rating) this season.

The Rams have an extra day-and-a-half to prepare for the Niners than the Niners have to prepare for the Rams. The Rams coaches started game planning for the 49ers last Sunday night. The 49ers coaches couldn’t fully commit to the Rams’ game plan until they landed in Northern California early Tuesday morning.

The 49ers’ offense hasn’t been this bad since the Mike Singletary Era. The past three games since the 49ers returned from their Bye week, the 49ers have converted just 29 percent of their third downs.

It gets worse.

The past three games, the 49ers have averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. They’re a run-first team that can’t run the ball right now.

It gets worse.

The 49ers have had just two drives of more than 49 net yards, no drives of more than 62 net yards, and no drives with more than three first downs the past three games. They cannot sustain offense so they rely on their defense to force turnovers. But the Rams’ offense is tied for 7th-best in the league with 1.3 turnovers per game. The 49ers probably are going to have to put together long drives to score on the Rams.

And here’s why I think the 49ers will be able to do that:

Michael Crabtree.

He says he will play against the Rams. He tore his Achilles’ tendon six months ago, but he says “for the most part” he is the same player he was before the injury.

I expect the 49ers to play Michael Crabtree at split end, Mario Manningham’s spot, and throw him a slant early in the game just to get him the ball, like they did with Manningham in the last game.

If Crabtree is as healthy as he says he is, just his presence on the field should be enough for the 49ers to beat to the Rams. Lining him up on the other side of the formation from Anquan Boldin should make it nearly impossible for the Rams to double-cover either guy, especially when the Rams also have to account for the 49ers’ tight end, Vernon Davis. The Rams can’t cover all three of those players – the Rams secondary almost is as bad as the Redskins’ secondary.

Think of the 49ers’ stretch run to make the playoffs as Ferris’ Bueller’s attempt to cut school without getting caught. And think of the game against the Rams as the scene when Bueller tried to get a seat at Chez Quis by pretending to be Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago.

The snooty maître’d with the pencil-thin blonde mustache didn’t believe Bueller was Froman and threatened to call the police. Right before Bueller outsmarted the maître’d, Bueller turned to the camera and said, “If I’m going to get busted, it is not going to be by a guy like that.”

The Rams are that guy.

The Rams won’t bust the Niners.

The 49ers will beat them 23-13.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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