NFC Championship Preview

January 29, 2022

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Breaking down the third meeting of the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, this time with the NFC Championship and a Super Bowl Appearance on the line. 

Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769

We’ve got a little twist on the Red Friday action you’re used to here at Chiefs Focus. With only two games to be played this weekend, we’re going to fill the Red Friday slot with a preview of the NFC’s battle between division rivals for the Halas Trophy, and tomorrow we will bring you an in depth look at the Chiefs quest for their third consecutive Lamar Hunt Trophy in their fourth consecutive AFC Championship game. 

With Sunday evening’s matchup between the 49ers and the Rams come a lot of familiarity. These teams have not only already seen each other twice this season, they’re taken the field against each other 144 times in the history of their franchises. Only once before have the stakes been this high. Only 5 of the players on both teams were even alive the last and only time these two played in a NFC Championship game, so this is truly a new frontier for all involved. 

Both teams come in with equally impressive wins in their own rights, both on the road last week. Let’s start with the 49ers. They went into Green Bay, in snow and 10 degree temperatures, and beat the top seeded Packers. Let me say that again – the 49ers (a team from California) went in to the “Frozen Tundra” of Lambeau Field and beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at their own game. Ice cold football. The Packers didn’t lose a home playoff game from 1961 to 2003. Since then, they’re 8-6 at home in the playoffs, losing their last 2 games played at home. Looks like MVPs don’t necessarily equate to Lombardi’s for Aaron Rodgers. Jimmy G came in and in the second half outplayed Rodgers. The Niners special teams blocked a field goal and a punt by Green Bay, scoring a touchdown off of the blocked punt. 

The Rams got out to a huge lead on Tom Brady and the (then) defending Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers to the tune of 27-3. The fast start can be credited to Sean McVay recognizing that the Bucs run defense would not allow them to begin the game rushing the ball effectively like they had at the end of the regular season. This is something we’ll get to a little deeper in the blog. While they started hot, the Bucs roared back and would tie the game at 27 all in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady magic in the playoffs? Well, yes, but the Rams tried everything in their power to give this game away. 4 turnovers, including 2 fumbles from Cam Akers, nearly damned the Rams, but ol reliable kicked in when they needed it the most. With two chunk plays to Cooper Kupp on the final driver of the game, Matt Stafford got the Rams into field goal range and the rest is history. 

So what are the keys to this matchup? Well, let’s start by erasing the thought that “it’s tough to beat a good team twice, let alone 3 times”. In league history, when teams have met twice in the regular season and one team has won both of those meetings (the Niners are 2-0 against the Rams this year), the team that swept the regular season is 20-12 in the third matchup. That’s a .625 winning percentage. To put that into context, New England has the best team winning percentage in league history at .561. Sealing the deal for the third time is not an exception, it is the norm when it comes to these scenarios, so the odds and history are in favor of the Niners. But there is so much more to unpack here. 

 Let’s start with the 49ers. We all know where they’ve been and what they’re done to get here. And we all know that a lot of folks in the national media, and myself, have been very hard on Jimmy Garoppolo throughout that string of games. Numerous times on this site I have said the 49ers are the best roster in the NFL outside of the quarterback position. I said the Niners were winning in spite of Jimmy on a couple of different occasions. If you look at the stat sheet, there’s reason to believe that’s the case – since week 15, Garoppolo has not recorded a passer rating over 90 in a single game. In that time frame, he has thrown for 2 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. 

The 49ers are 5-1 in those games, and are on the cusp of their second Super Bowl berth in 3 seasons with…Jimmy Gsaroppolo at quarterback. Yes, their defense is incredible. Yes, they are one of the best running teams in football. But Jimmy G handles the ball every single play, and finds ways to turn that into victories for his team. He may not be blowing up the stat sheets, but he’s proving he can win football games. Last week is a perfect example – 131 passing yards and an interception. The 49ers won on 2 field goals and a special teams touchown. But Garoppolo ripped the tape off of his injured thumb at halftime, got an injection, and outplayed likely MVP Aaron Rodgers in the second half to send the Packers home once again. 

It’s obviously not all Jimmy G, so what is it? Particularly against the Rams? Dee. Bo. In both games against the Rams this season, Deebo Samuel had 130+ scrimmage yards. He only scored one touchdown against LA, but his ability to kill a team from anywhere on the field wreaked havoc on the Rams defense in both meetings, particularly in the second half of the week 18 matchup. What Deebo does is exploit a section of the Rams defense that hasn’t been overpaid for. While the Rams front 4 and secondary take a up a good chunk of cap space with names like Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Leonard Floyd, and Jalen Ramsey, their linebacking corps is average at best, and the league’s 31st best paid linebacking unit. Attacking the perimeters of the front 7 with Samuel, as well as hitting him and George Kittle over the middle in the short to intermediate passing game sets up big play potential for San Fran against LA’s defense. Last time around, Jajuan Jennings exploded on LA because they had gotten so focused on the run game and short/mid pass attack that they essentially lost track of Jennings. Look for the Niners to exploit this type of gameplan against on Los Angeles on Sunday – it’s proven pretty effective thus far. 

The defensive gameplan for the 49ers might be a little more complex with such a dynamic offense that the Rams tout across the field, but they have the ingredients to cook up some chaos for Matt Stafford and company. Stafford on the season had the best passer rating against the blitz in the NFL – 139.6. This is fantastic, because if the blitz doesn’t get home he can kill an opposing defense. There’s always the flip side. Stafford has a 63.4 QB rating when he’s actually pressured. Near the bottom of the league. San Francisco has pressured him to say the least. In their two previous matchups, San Fran sacked Stafford 2+ times in each game, and in week 18 pressured him 13 times. To top that off, in the Niners last 3 games (against Stafford, Dak Prescott, and Aaron Rodgers), each of their opposing QB’s has registered a passer rating under 100, and no one has thrown for more than 235 yards. A lot of that is assisted by two all world pass rushers that have been getting home – Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. Armstead has 6 sacks in the Niners last 4 games, and last week against Green Bay Bosa got home to Rodgers twice and also hit him twice. The recipe for San Francisco’s defense is pretty simple – frustrate Stafford, get to him, and make the Rams rely on a running game that averaged 2.4 yards per carry and coughed up 2 fumbles. 

The last thing that I mentioned above is the last thing the Rams want to do offensively. Leading into the playoffs the Rams has been riding a running game that found life last in the regular season. Enter the playoffs, and things changed. Los Angeles has started fast in both playoff games behind explosive passing play and quick scores from Stafford and the offense. On Sunday, they will need to dial up the same formula against a San Francisco defense that has trouble keeping up with LA’s star wideout Cooper Kupp. In their two meetings this season, Kupp has 122 and 118 yards respectively, so he had certainly gotten his. They will need to rely heavily on Kupp to get them going, but he will inevitably need some help. OBJ combined for 36 yars this season receiving against the 49ers. That…is brutal. When you bring in a star like Odell Beckham, the expectation from the coaching staff to teammates to the fans is that he will make big plays when you need them the most. Well, there’s no time like the present to start making that happen. If OBJ can manage to find his way to 60-70 yards and score on Sunday, and Kupp gets his like he has this season, it will be tough for the Niners to keep up with the Rams pace. This is also the only way the Rams can open up their running game against a stiff Niners front. Linebacker Fred Warner is about as good as they come in the NFL, and he will have LA’s recently less than stellar rushing attack sniffed out. LA must stretch the field early and rely on their stars. 

Defensively for the Rams, their focal point should be very, very similar to San Francisco’s. The last time the Rams allowed a passer rating over 100 was week 10. Week 10. That was November 15th. Who’d they give it up to? James Garoppolo. The Ram defense has been on a tear ever since. Last week against the Bucs, the Rams essentially took Rob Gronkowski completely away from Tom Brady in building a 27-3 lead over the Bucs before the tide turned. Brady tried to go to Gronkowski 11 times throughout the day, and only found him on 4. As of late, George Kittle has not been a large factor in the 49ers passing game. He has spent a lot of his time blocking, and only has 5 catches on 9 targets in the postseason. That, coupled with LA’s trend last week of taking away tight end, could spell trouble for the Niners offense. 

Aaron Donald had a monster game against Tampa last week, sacking Tom Brady once, hitting him 3 times, and totaling 7 tackles from all over the defensive line. Donald’s versatility last week could spell trouble for the 49ers this week with Trent Williams dealing with an injury.  Add that to Von Miller’s recent tear – he’s had a sack in 6 consecutive games, and had a strip sack on Tom Brady – and you have a Rams defensive front that can rush decision by a quarterback (especially one with 6 picks in his last 6 games) and create takeaway opportunities for Jalen Ramsey and the Rams secondary. 

There isn’t a chance that this one doesn’t end up a tight ball game. I look for this to be pretty similar to the Rams Bucs game, as well as the week 18 matchup between these two. I think Sean McVay knows he has to start hot and get a lead built early with his passing attack. He can’t run the ball against this defense out of the gate and expect to put up enough points to be comfortable. But the 49ers will mount a comeback at some point. It will be all about how the Rams handle the adversity – will they get conservative as they have all season and play not to lose, or will they put the ball in Matthew Stafford’s hands and ask him to keep the gas pedal down? Either way, this deep in the playoffs if you can get big plays in the running game and play solid defense at all 3 levels I like your chances. I’m taking the San Francisco 49ers to move the season tally to 3-0 vs the Rams, and in the process return to their second Super Bowl in three seasons. Hopefully that’s a rematch of Super Bowl 54. 

49ers 28, Rams 24 Betway

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