The San Francisco 49ers will look to punch their ticket to the playoffs on Sunday when they face their NFC West division rival Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium.
San Francisco controls its own destiny, win and they are in. A loss does not necessarily eliminate the 49ers, they could still back into the playoffs if the Falcons win at home against New Orleans.
The 49ers come into this game with several questions, here are five to keep an eye on Sunday:
- Who will start at quarterback?
The signs coming out of Santa Clara this week seem to point to Jimmy Garoppolo returning to the starting lineup.
In the 49ers week 10 upset of Los Angeles, Garoppolo completed 15 of 19 passes, including seven of nine on third down for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Garoppolo missed the 49ers game last Sunday against Houston after suffering a grade three UCL sprain to his right thumb late in the first half of the 49ers 20-17 loss to Tennessee on December 23.
After being shut down completely last week, Garoppolo tested out his thumb on Tuesday and has been listed as a limited participant in each practice this week.
With Garoppolo out, rookie Trey Lance made his second start of the season against Houston.
After a slow start, over the final 30:38 Lance showed why the 49ers invested three first round picks to acquire their quarterback of the future.
Lance made big throw after big throw to Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle while leading the 49ers offense to the final 23 points of the game.
While he hasn’t done it yet in the NFL, Lance is no stranger to playing in big games. As a redshirt freshman at North Dakota State in 2019, Lance led the Bison to the NCAA FCS Championship.
- Can the 49ers stay committed to the run?
Leading up to the first matchup with Los Angeles, Kyle Shanahan challenged his team to do everything necessary for the 49ers offense to run the ball 40 times.
To reach this goal would require big plays from everyone.
The 49ers defense did its part by forcing to interceptions in the first quarter, one of them being taken back for a touchdown.
With the defense doing its part, and Jimmy Garoppolo regularly delivering passes to convert on third down in the first matchup, Kyle Shanahan was able to call 42 run plays.
The commitment to the run allowed the 49ers to dominate time of possession, holding on to the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
With the issues San Francisco has faced in the secondary this week, keeping the Rams offense off the field may be even more important this time around.
- Who will be in the 49ers secondary?
After being relatively free of dealing with Covid-19 issues this season, the 49ers secondary was hammered by the virus this week.
With starters Jimmie Ward, K’Waun Williams, and Ambry Thomas all missing time this week, the challenge of preparing to face Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr became more difficult.
In addition to the three starters, San Francisco’s secondary has also been without Dontae Johnson and Deommodore Lenoir this week due to Covid issues.
No matter who takes the field for the 49ers, the primary objective will be to stop Cooper Kupp.
Kupp is on pace to finish the season with the league lead in receptions (138), receiving yards (1,829) and receiving touchdowns (15). If he stays out front after this weekend, he will be just the fourth receiver in the Super Bowl era to capture the receiving triple crown.
When Rams and 49ers squared off in week 10 Kupp led all Rams receivers with 11 receptions for 122 yards.
If they can clear Covid-19 protocols the responsibility for corralling Kupp, who usually lines up in the slot, will fall on the shoulders of Williams and Ward.
As the numbers suggest, Kupp is going to make plays. It will be on Williams and Ward to limit the damage.
With the issues facing the secondary this week, San Francisco’s defensive line could make up the difference.
Nick Bosa leads the way for the 49ers pass rush. His presence makes things easier for the rest of the defensive line to get to the quarterback. Over the second half of the season Arden Key has recorded six sacks and 12 quarterback hits.
If Bosa can get pressure off the edge and Key up the middle, along with Samson Ebukam and Arik Armstead, the 49ers pass rush could force Stafford to get rid of the ball earlier than he wants.
Stafford has struggled with turnovers during the second half of the season. Over his last eight games the veteran quarterback has turned the ball over 13 times, 11 interceptions and two lost fumbles.
- Can San Francisco shut down the Rams run game?
Los Angeles has run the ball 393 times this season, their lowest total under Sean McVay and eighth fewest in the NFL.
In addition to the low number of attempts, the Rams come into Sunday with the 10th lowest yards per rush attempt, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
The Los Angeles run game is led by Sony Michel, 802 yards on 187 attempts with Darrell Henderson not far behind.
The Rams hope to find a spark for their run game from Cam Akers. Akers led Los Angeles last season and was expected to have a big year in 2021 before suffering a torn Achilles tendon. Akers has practiced in full this week and is expected to make his season debut on Sunday.
- Can the 49ers hold on to the ball?
Hold on to the ball.— Cam Pepper® (@Cam_Pepper) November 15, 2021
The above tweet says it all.
When the 49ers met up with Los Angeles earlier this year, very few gave San Francisco a chance to win.
San Francisco held onto the ball and Los Angeles could not as the 49ers dominated the game throughout.
Los Angeles and San Francisco come into this game very close in offensive yards per game, defensive yards allowed per game, points scored, and points allowed.
The team that wins on Sunday will be the team that holds on to the ball.
49ers 20 Rams 26