It’s Championship Weekend in the NFL and across the AFC and NFC, there are two exciting games to follow. We’ve opted to talk the NFC Championship, which features two well known NFC West rivals, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, today once again meeting in the postseason at SoFi Stadium (6:30pm ET Sunday; Live on TV: Fox).
The Rams, who will be hosting the game, won the division over the 49ers but lost the regular season series. San Francisco scored 27 points or more in both meetings, clearly showing their mettle against the top-ranked Rams. It is also worth noting that while LA is favored in this one with the top online offshore oddsmakers, that when it comes to the postseason, the Rams have never beaten the 49ers. Will history repeat itself in today’s Sunday matchup or will the new look Rams manage to overcome that demon? Let’s take a look at the game with this preview and see the keys to the NFC Championship. Then we’ll conclude with our predictions and picks against the bookies.
Last Time We Met…
To really do a deep dive into the NFC Championship, its worth looking back on the regular season and the 49ers’ two wins over their rivals. San Francisco, despite going 0-4 against the rest of the West, looked dominant when it came to their meetings against the Rams. In game one, the Niners led from the start and never looked back. A 14-0 first quarter lead was made possible by the defense, who created two turnovers on the Rams’ first two drives. This turned into a halftime lead of 21-7 as the Niners had a fantastic showing on all sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the Rams looked lost as they put in one of their worst performances of the year, losing 31-10. The offense wasn’t working and the defense was gassed by the end, having allowed the Niners nearly 150 yards on the ground and a time of possession advantage of nearly 2:1.
As much as this game was a wake up call for the Rams, marking the first really lopsided loss the team experienced, it served as a turning point for the 49ers. San Francisco had struggled in the early going but they managed to pick up momentum after this win, and squeak their way into the playoffs as the final wildcard. The Niners have been the underdogs in each of their two playoff upsets, first defeating the NFC East Champion Dallas Cowboys and then the NFC North Champion and top-seeded Green Bay Packers.
The 49ers began to pick up momentum after the first Rams win, yes, but perhaps of equal importance was the discovery born out of this game. The win over the Rams marked the first time that wide receiver and swiss army knife Deebo Samuel found himself an integral part of the backfield. The rise of Samuel as a dual threat rushing and passing option has been vital for the Niners as they possess one of the most versatile, dangerous weapons in all of football. And the Rams game was truly his coming out party.
With Samuel unleashed and the 49ers riding their biggest win of the year, came the second meeting against the Rams. This time, the tables seemed to have turned as LA opened the game by holding the 49ers scoreless and handling their own business on offense. The score was 17-0 before the Niners got on the board with a field goal before halftime. But San Francisco didn’t quit, something that was testament in the team’s two playoff wins. The 49ers managed to tie the game 24-24 with just under two minutes left in regulation. In overtime, San Francisco rode the leg of Robbie Gould, who notched the game winning field goal to give the Niners the 27-24 victory and 2-0 season sweep. More importantly, the win was what booked San Francisco’s ticket to the playoffs so in a way, the Rams are responsible for creating the matchup we’ll see on Sunday.
While it is very difficult to beat the same team three times in one season, it’s not impossible. And truthfully if there was one team the Rams had probably been hoping not to see in the NFC Championship, it would be the 49ers, as they have had their number this year and have had their number all-time when it comes to postseason meetings.
Running the Ball
Most teams when down a large margin, can fall into abandoning the run simply as a means to save clock. But even while losing 17-3, the Niners and Kyle Shanahan didn’t waver from their game plan and it paid off big time. The 49ers are dangerous when they are running the ball, and it gives them an edge over the remaining teams in the postseason should they continue to run the ball well.
While the Rams hold the obvious advantage in the passing game with Matthew Stafford and the NFL’s greatest ever receiving season holder, Cooper Kupp, this game will likely come down to their run defense and if it can stop the Niners in a way it hasn’t yet this year. Despite possessing a top-five defense, the Rams allowed the Niners to rush for nearly 300 yards across the two meetings thus far. Another such performance could well send San Francisco to the Super Bowl.
NFC Championship Preview Final Predictions & Picks
When it comes to the Rams/49ers, there are really no clear outcomes of how this might go. The Rams have been, overall, the better team this year. With a rock solid defense featuring the likes of Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Von Miller to name a few, LA should cause trouble for Jimmy Garoppolo and whatever the Niners have planned in the passing game. But those same players, particularly Donald and Miller on the line, have been unable to stop the run of Samuel and Elijah Mitchell. It is that element that really stands out as the Rams have been able to stop most other teams and limit what they do on the ground. But not the Niners. And that’s a problem because a quarterback like Garopolo, relies on the run game as he’s a mid-tier passer at best. He’s also still nursing a shoulder injury which means he could be limited to begin with. If the Rams can stop the run, they’ll win the game. But have they learned enough from their previous losses on how to do that? Time will tell.
In their careers, Shanahan and Sean McVay have met 10 times with Shanahan winning seven of those. The 49ers coach has the veteran experience his former protege does not. And while coaching is only part of the formula, it seems to loom larger in the postseason. Shanahan knows what it takes to win these big games. McVay has yet to show us he does. And while his quarterback is a veteran of this sport, Stafford is playing in his first-ever NFC Championship after just winning his first-ever playoff game earlier this year. So needless to say, Stafford joins his head coach in lacking a lot of postseason experience.
So much of what we saw between these two teams this year juxtaposed what we would have expected. But it’s been the Niners who have looked more polished, showing strength in all three sides of the ball. They didn’t panic when down against the Rams with their season on the line. They made huge plays against the Packers to keep their playoff journey alive. The Rams meanwhile, haven’t looked as good this postseason. While they did beat the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, they nearly allowed Tom Brady to make another historic comeback. Down 27-3, Brady brought his team back and tied the game late in the fourth. This was in part due to four turnovers the Rams had, nearly coughing up the win in the process. But Stafford kept his cool and managed the game-winning touchdown.
Both the Niners and Rams are in this position for a reason. Either team could win and move on to the ultimate stage. Our pick is to take the 49ers (+3.5) and look for the over on 46. These are the best options for those recommendations:
- Niners +3.5pts @ -115 with any of Bovada, BetOnline or EveryGame.
- For the total points in this NFC Championship game, go over 45.5pts @ -108 with BetOnline. It is -110 with Bovada.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.