49ers can lock up No. 2 playoff seed with win over Rams

Sunday, January 1, 2012
Rams kicker Josh Brown walks away after missing a field goal during the fourth quarter last week in Pittsburgh. (DON WRIGHT ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- The San Francisco 49ers became the first team to clinch its division by shutting out the St. Louis Rams to win the NFC West a month ago. There's a nice bonus for the Niners if they can beat the Rams in the regular-season finale: the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye.

Sure, they're in. There's still plenty of incentive for a franchise that's made a rapid rise to the top under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh.

"Anytime you could lock up a bye, you'd take it," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "Great opportunity for us. We've just got to go seize it."

They couldn't have picked a more vulnerable opponent.

The bedraggled Rams (2-13) are in danger of a dubious honor -- landing the No. 1 pick in the draft for the second time in three years. All it'll take is dropping their seventh in a row and the Colts winning at Jacksonville, and they again will be at the bottom of the barrel.

St. Louis, just 10-37 under third-year coach Steve Spagnuolo and 12-51 with fourth-year general manager Billy Devaney, could be on the verge of a housecleaning. That's led to a lot of questions this week about trying to save Spags' job.

"We don't worry about things we can't control," Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "He's that way, we're that way. We're just going to go out there and play our rear ends off."

Owner Stan Kroenke has been silent on the subject of what comes next for the Rams, who had been viewed as a franchise on the rise after last year's six-win improvement. Now they're playing to a half-full stadium and reduced to muttering about injuries that have decimated the secondary and offensive line besides a persistent high left ankle sprain that almost assuredly will knock out quarterback Sam Bradford for a sixth game.

Attendance is likely to be more sparse than usual given the noon start coming off New Year's Eve partying. The Rams asked Thursday for a 24-hour extension to meet NFL sellout requirements.

The 49ers (12-3) already have doubled their win total from a disappointing 2010 season, and even with a loss can get the No. 2 seed and bye if the Saints lose at home against the Panthers. Harbaugh would be just the fourth coach in NFL history to win 13 games in his first year if his team can repeat the performance from the 26-0 whipping it handed out in San Francisco. Two 49ers coaches already have done it, George Seifert going 14-2 in 1989 and Steve Mariucci at 13-3 in 1997.

San Francisco also could land its first 13-win season since 1997. A sixth road win would match their total from the previous three seasons, rewarding them for attention to detail.

"The biggest thing that I'd point to is a lot of little reasons that a lot of people think are the minutia that aren't important that add up to make all the difference," Harbaugh said. "And our guys continually do the little things, and they stack on each other and they build on each other. And lo and behold, you win games in high pressure situations or find ways to do enough things right to win games and get better.

"Enough of those things lead to championships."

The 49ers are stout on defense, on pace for a franchise record while allowing a league-low 13.5 points per game, and sound on offense behind Smith. They lead the NFL with a plus-26 turnover ratio, with the most takeaways (36) and the fewest turnovers (10) in the league.

Aldon Smith has 14 sacks, one shy of the NFL rookie record. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson, two of the 49ers' four Pro Bowl starters on defense, have six interceptions apiece.

Kicker David Akers, who has set an NFL record with 42 field goals, and punter Andy Lee are both Pro Bowlers, too.

They also have stayed healthy, with 30 players appearing in every game and 12 making every start. That dwarfs the Rams' totals of 14 and four. The 49ers have eight Pro Bowl representatives, the Rams none.

"They've put it together and you get on a roll," Spagnuolo said. "It works both ways. You get on a roll winning, confidence and boom, boom, things are working and clicking.

"It happens the other way, too, where you can't really find any continuity."

The 49ers have won six of seven in a series knotted at 61-61-2, and Frank Gore always seems to get some of his best days against the Rams, totaling 832 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games. He'll be facing a defense in danger of setting a franchise record for rushing yards allowed in a season.

The Rams have been giving up an NFL-worst 154.5 yards per game, and if they surrender 159 yards it'll break the previous franchise worst in 2008. The 49ers got 144 yards the first time.

The 49ers' biggest worry might be encountering an opponent trying anything and everything to finish with a good taste.

"They have nothing to lose, so they can come out with whatever," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "For us, there's a lot riding on this game. We have to come out and play like we have all season. We know what's at stake."

Journeyman Kellen Clemens is expected to get his third straight start at quarterback for the Rams. He passed for 91 yards in a 27-0 loss to the Steelers last week after throwing for 229 yards and a touchdown in a 20-13 loss to Cincinnati the previous week.

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