Rival 49ers, Rams Face Anticlimactic Regular-Season Finish

Rival 49ers, Rams Face Anticlimactic Regular-Season Finish

Christian McCaffrey (23) of the San Francisco 49ers runs between Jordan Fuller (4) and Jonah Williams (92) of the Los Angeles Rams, to score a touchdown for a 7–0 lead, during a 30–23 49ers win at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., on Sept. 17, 2023. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Dan Wood

Dan Wood

1/3/2024

Updated: 1/3/2024

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As they drew up the slate for this year’s final round of regular-season action, the National Football League’s schedule-makers undoubtedly had an entirely different vision in mind for California fans.
While five playoff berths and four division championships will be on the line in the league’s 16 games this weekend, California’s two playoff-bound teams will meet Jan. 7 in Santa Clara with virtually nothing at stake.
The San Francisco 49ers, who have already wrapped up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage for the duration of their stay in the upcoming National Conference playoffs, and the Los Angeles Rams are set to square off at Levi’s Stadium in what will basically amount to a glorified exhibition game.
With a sixth victory in their past seven games, a 26–25 road triumph over the New York Giants on New Year’s Eve, and a Seattle Seahawks loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers later in the day, the Rams secured an unlikely playoff berth. As a result, they will compete this week for nothing more than a potential higher post-season seeding.
Unlike their counterparts in the American Conference East, where the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins will take part in a marquee clash for a division title Jan. 7 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, the NFC West rival 49ers and Rams will have to wait for a truly meaningful clash.
They might not need to bide their time for more than a couple of weeks, however.
While San Francisco will enjoy a bye in the Jan. 13–15 wild-card playoff round, Los Angeles will play on the road, against either the NFC North champion Detroit Lions or the winner of the NFC East, where the Dallas Cowboys have the inside track over the Philadelphia Eagles.
And should the Rams prevail in their post-season opener, they would quite possibly be right back in Santa Clara to face the 49ers again in the Jan. 20–21 divisional playoff round.
It all makes for a rather anticlimactic regular-season finish, what with San Francisco and Los Angeles both planning to withhold at least several top players from this weekend’s matchup.
Each team has already announced that it will start a backup quarterback. Former USC signal-caller Sam Darnold will step in for most valuable player candidate Brock Purdy for the 49ers, while it will be erstwhile Eagles starter Carson Wentz instead of Matthew Stafford for the Rams.
The 49ers had already ruled star running back Christian McCaffrey out of the regular-season finale. A “mild” strain of his right calf resulted in McCaffrey leaving Sunday’s 27–10 victory at Washington, a result that secured San Francisco’s status as the NFC’s top seed.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters during a media availability earlier this week. “It was good news.”
Given this week’s situation and the fact San Francisco will be idle the following week, Mr. Shanahan expressed optimism that McCaffrey, a former Stanford star, will be ready to go for the team’s playoff opener.
“We’re real confident on that,” he said.
Christian McCaffrey (23) of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the ball during the second half of a game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField in Landover, Md., on Dec. 31, 2023. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Christian McCaffrey (23) of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the ball during the second half of a game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField in Landover, Md., on Dec. 31, 2023. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

The league’s No. 1 rusher with 1,459 yards and the co-leader with 21 touchdowns this season, McCaffrey told reporters after the game that he believed the injury was “minor” and that he “just made the smart move” by exiting.
49ers cornerback Ambry Thomas, meanwhile, is expected to miss this week’s game after having played against Washington with a broken hand. He was set to undergo surgery, with the expectation that he, too, would be ready come playoff time.
San Francisco is also hopeful that defensive tackle Arik Armstead, who has been sidelined since Dec. 3 because of a foot injury, will return for the playoffs.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the first half of a game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 17, 2023. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the first half of a game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 17, 2023. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Decisions on potentially resting other key players this week will be made closer to game time, Mr. Shanahan indicated.
“It’s really a hard thing to do, and it’s not always the best thing to do,” he said. “You have to look at each individual and each situation, and play it out.”
Rams Coach Sean McVay wrestled with similar questions about whether, or how much, to play other starters this week, even though the team’s first-round playoff matchup is not certain.
Star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, standout wide receiver Cooper Kupp, and running back Kyren Williams are also expected to be held out.
Kyren Williams (23) of the Los Angeles Rams runs through an opening during a 30–23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., on Sept. 17, 2023. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Kyren Williams (23) of the Los Angeles Rams runs through an opening during a 30–23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., on Sept. 17, 2023. (Harry How/Getty Images)

While a wild-card date at Philadelphia might be the Rams’ opening-round preference, given that the struggling Eagles have lost four of their past five games, that could only happen if Philadelphia defeats the New York Giants and Dallas is upset at Washington this week.
Beating the 49ers would lock Los Angeles into the No. 6 seed and most likely mean a first-round playoff game at Detroit.
“We’re going to do everything we can to try and go win this football game and play really good football,” Mr. McVay said on his radio show earlier this week. “How exactly that affects the specifics are things we are working through because … the most important thing is to make sure we’re ready to go for the wild-card game.”
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Dan Wood

Dan Wood

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Dan Wood is a community sports reporter based in Orange County, California. He has covered sports professionally for some 43 years, spending nearly three decades in the newspaper industry and 14 years in radio. He is an avid music fan, with a strong lean toward country and classic rock.

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