The 49ers had hoped to have already clinched the No. 2 seed entering the final weekend of the regular season, but things didn't go their way.
However, that coveted first-round bye doesn't seem to be in jeopardy with their season finale coming against doormat Rams, who didn’t quite live up to their status as NFC West favorite entering the season.
The Niners visit the Edwards Jones Dome in St. Louis looking to sweep the season series for the third time in four years, and more importantly, secure a first-round playoff bye.
The 49ers (12-3) clinched the NFC West title and their first playoff berth since 2002 with a 26-0 win over the Rams (2-13) on Dec. 4. They're assured of hosting at least one postseason game but surely would like an extra week off before that happens.
All they have to do to claim that first-round bye is beat a reeling St. Louis team which has lost six consecutive games by a 150-53 score. Even if it loses, San Francisco could still get the bye if New Orleans – also 12-3 – loses to Carolina because the Niners own the tiebreaker over the Saints.
The Niners would rather take care of business themselves.
New Orleans defeating Atlanta on Monday night prevented the 49ers from already wrapping up the No. 2 seed and potentially allowing them to rest their starters this weekend.
"We'll go down to St. Louis and try to get a win and lock up that second seed and get that bye week," leading rusher Frank Gore said. "As a team, that will help us, especially playing at home. Our first (playoff) game, that's big for us. I'm excited."
Gore, fourth among the NFL’s leading rushers with 1,202 yards, also should be excited to face the league's worst run defense. St. Louis gives up 154.5 rushing yards per game.
Conversely, San Francisco owns the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense, allowing just 75.1 yards per game, and also has allowed the fewest points in the league (202). St. Louis has a league-low 166 points, the only team to have scored fewer than 200.
The 49ers held the Rams to 157 total yards in December's victory and held leading rusher Steven Jackson to 19 on 10 carries. It was the second time in the last five meetings that St. Louis couldn't score on the 49ers. Those are San Francisco’s only two shutouts over the past 10 seasons.
San Francisco put together another impressive defensive performance in a 19-17 victory over Seattle last Saturday.
Pro Bowl kicker David Akers made four field goals to give him an NFL-record 42 this season, and the only points the Seahawks scored after halftime came following a blocked punt. Seattle totaled just 72 yards in the second half.
"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," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Find ways to do enough things right to win games. And get better. Those things lead to wins and enough of those wins lead to championships."
San Francisco continues to rely on its defense with the offense depleted because of injuries to Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle), Kyle Williams (concussion) and Delanie Walker (jaw) as well as the team's decision to release receiver Braylon Edwards.
Walker won’t play against the Rams and his status for the upcoming playoffs is in doubt. Ginn and Williams were held out of practice throughout the past week and both are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.
THAT LEAVES MICHAEL CRABTREE AND BRETT SWAIN as the only two healthy wideouts on the San Francisco roster. Swain has just one reception this season, but he is in line to start opposite Crabtree against the Rams.
On Saturday, the 49ers promoted rookie Joe Hastings to the active roster from their practice squad, and Hastings likely will be in uniform for his first NFL game against the Rams.
Hastings is generously listed a 6-0, 190 pounds. He ran a 4.51 at the NFL combine earlier this year. But he did average 128.8 yards receiving at Washburn College, which was second in the nation, and his speed is evident. He can get down the field and is crafty enough to find soft spots in the zone. He plays more like a slot receiver than a featured No. 1 option.
The lack of veteran depth at receiver doesn't figure to be much of an issue against St. Louis, though.
While the 49ers prepare for the playoffs, the Rams are looking to next season, with a chance to have the No. 1 pick in the draft if they lose and Indianapolis wins this weekend.
St. Louis is coming off its second shutout loss in four games, 27-0 to Pittsburgh last Saturday, as Kellen Clemens started for the injured Sam Bradford and completed 9 of 24 passes for 91 yards.
It's been a miserable season for the Rams, who have scored an NFL-low 15 touchdowns and rank last in third-down efficiency.
While Bradford wants to play Sunday, the Rams may choose to be cautious. Bradford is listed as doubtful for the game.
"We know we're dealing with a competitive guy and all I can say is we'll take it day by day and we'll be smart with it," coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
With one year remaining on his contract, Spagnuolo could be coaching his final game. The Rams are 10-37 in his three seasons.
Spagnuolo wouldn't comment on speculation about his future, and he certainly isn't thinking about the idea that a loss actually may benefit the Rams because it could give them the top overall draft pick.
"There is something to winning the last game in my opinion, whether you're moving on to the playoffs or not," Spagnuolo said. "I think it carries you. One of the most rewarding things in this business is the locker room at the end of a win."
But the Rams haven’t had that feeling much this season, and the Niners want to make sure they end the season without it, too.
MOST OF EDWARDS’ TEAMMATES WERE SURPRISED he was released this week and some had great affection for him.
"I love Braylon. It definitely felt like I lost a brother, it did kind of hurt me a little bit," running back Anthony Dixon said. "I'm definitely down with the organization and all the choices they make so I can't say I'm mad about it but I liked Braylon."
Tight end Vernon Davis befriended Edwards right away and even supported him while he was on the team through his twitter account.
"He was a great guy and outstanding guy," said Davis, who spoke with Edwards after his release. "His whole thing is that he wants to get his knee right and he's going to kill it next year whoever he ends up with. He was really positive."
Harbaugh refused to talk this week about Edwards or the reasons for his release, but it may have been over a discrepancy in his rehabilitation from knee and shoulder injuries.
Edwards may have felt that going on injured reserve was the best option, while the 49ers may have felt as if Edwards should play through the injury.
One play that typified Edwards' short stay was his inability to break up an interception in the end zone on a long pass against the Ravens on Thanksgiving night. Cornerback Lardarius Webb got on the inside of Edwards, and Edwards made little effort to try and knock the ball away from him.
That was the last turnover by the 49ers, who since have gone 18 consecutive quarters without committing a turnover.
THAT IMPRESSIVE STREAK OF PROTECTING THE FOOTBALL has the 49ers on the verge of tying a NFL record heading into their final game of the regular season.
The Niners haven’t exactly built their 12-3 season on offense this year, but there is one thing they do on that side of the ball that sets the standard for the rest of the NFL.
Nobody protects the football better than the 49ers.
San Francisco hasn’t committed a turnover in its last four games and leads the league in fewest giveaways with 10. If the 49ers don’t commit a turnover against the Rams, they will tie the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season set last year by New England.
The 49ers also lead the league with 36 takeaways, making their plus-26 turnover differential the NFL’s best. That turnover ratio is the third-best since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.
San Francisco ranks just 26th in the league in total offense, but that unit has contributed to the team’s successful formula by limiting mistakes and holding onto the ball.
The 49ers had a minus-1 turnover differential last season, when they committed 23 turnovers. The team’s skill players on offense are essentially the same as last year, but the big change has come in the methodology of first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff that has transformed San Francisco into a contender after eight seasons without a winning record or playoff berth.
“There are other things that go into it other than, ‘Hey guys, let’s just take care of the ball today,’” Harbaugh said Friday after his team’s final practice of the regular season. “There is scheme, there’s philosophy that goes in there. It’s the pride that the players have in protecting the football, understanding situational football.”
Harbaugh said the 49ers have emphasized that scheme since the team’s first practice in July, and it certainly has showed in the results. San Francisco has not committed a turnover in its last 18 quarters since quarterback Alex Smith threw an end-zone interception in the final seconds before halftime of a Thanksgiving Day loss at Baltimore on Nov. 24.
SMITH HAS BEEN THE CATALYST behind San Francisco’s low turnover rate. The seventh-year veteran has thrown 415 passes this season but only five have been intercepted, the fewest of any starting quarterback in the league.
Some may call him a game manager, but Smith’s improved decision making and ball protection have been major factors in the turnaround season of Smith and his team. Smith was 19-31 as a NFL starter entering this year and had thrown more interceptions (53) than touchdown passes (51) in his first six seasons.
“You’ve got to do the little things to help give your team a chance to win,” Smith said. “Guys do it a lot of different ways, and sometimes they’re not the real noticeable thing. You talk about that winning edge, whatever it is with the quarterback, those are the things I look to.”
Smith has thrown 16 touchdown passes and enters Sunday’s game against the Rams with a career-best 90.1 passer rating, which ranks 10th in the league.
Even though Smith’s passing numbers this year pale in comparison to more prolific quarterbacks, Harbaugh openly promoted Smith earlier this month for the third NFC Pro Bowl berth at quarterback behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans’ Drew Brees. That spot went to New York’s Eli Manning.
“Alex has a great understanding of situational football and good football and the difference between holding onto the ball and turning it over,” Harbaugh said. “He’s also been uncanny in the pocket. If he’s been hit or sacked, not giving up the sack fumble (or) the big momentum turnover that can lead to a change in field position, put points on the board for the opposition. He’s been outstanding in that regard.”
Smith has absorbed several crunching hits in the pocket this year but has lost just two fumbles despite being sacked 41 times, more than any other NFL quarterback.
He’s not the only one doing a good job protecting the football. Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, fourth among the NFL’s leading rushers with 1,202 yards, has 269 touches this season and has lost two fumbles, tying his career low.
The only other turnover by a San Francisco player this season was by tight end Vernon Davis, who lost a fumble after catching a pass during a Week 9 win at Washington.
Quick-hit Niners notes
--- Smith has also led five fourth-quarter comebacks this year, which ties him for the franchise's single-season record established by Joe Montana in 1989. One of those comebacks occurred last Saturday in Seattle. Smith completed a crucial 41-yard pass down the sideline to Michael Crabtree on second-and-18. The play led to David Akers' 39-yard field goal with 3:01 left.
--- Dixon spent Christmas at his place in the Bay Area with his youngest brother Deshun, a outfielder in the Tampa Rays system. The brothers sat back and watched basketball, something that was unimaginable when they were growing up. "When my mom and dad got divorced, my mom just struggled," Dixon said recently. "We even went homeless at one point, stayed in a shelter. Had Christmas at Goodwill." As the eldest of four brothers, Anthony had to serve as a father figure. Now three of the four are professional athletes, with third brother Rashun a Single-A outfielder with the Oakland A's.
--- Jim Harbaugh marvels at his father Jack, a former college coach. "He's got a couple doubles because Kentucky and Indiana are playing (basketball). Indiana gets the big win, I see my dad right behind the bench, and man, there must be two or three of this guy. He's in Baltimore. He's in San Francisco. He's in a lot of places." Jack and his wife Jackie reside in Milwaukee, but Jim said they are rarely there.
--- Harbaugh scored big points with his wife Sarah on Christmas Day by walking around the Stanford campus with their two young daughters. Harbaugh also said he was watching a college football game with his father, Jack, when he heard Sarah coming down the stairs. He quickly switched the channel to Peppa Pig, a children's program more suitable to his young daughters. Harbaugh also hit the floor and started working on a puzzle with his daughters. "That won some points," he said. "That was a good move, good strategic move. She was very pleased with me."
--- LB Aldon Smith was not only left off the Pro Bowl list, he wasn't even named as an alternate. The main reason Smith wasn't on the ballot was because he's not a starter. "It makes sense," Smith said. "But if you're balling you should go." Smith has 14 sacks this year, just a half-sack away from establishing a new rookie record for sacks in a season. His youth is one reason he wasn't overly disappointed with the Pro Bowl snub. "This is not my last year playing football," he said.