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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 30: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers challanges a call against the Cleveland Browns at Candlestick Park on October 30, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
For most of the San Francisco 49ers, these are uncharted waters.
For players such as Alex Smith, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis, this season has been a little like cruising with Sir Francis Drake up the California coast, seeing a land they’d never expected to see.
Because this Sunday the Niners can clinch the NFC West championship and a trip to the playoffs with a win over the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park.
The Niners, 9-2 this season, haven’t been to the postseason since 2002. Smith was a backup quarterback at the University of Utah then. Gore was a sophomore at the University of Miami. Davis was still in high school in Washington, D.C.
The turnaround this season for the 49ers has been quick and surprising, but for the 49ers the ride has been exciting. And earning a spot in the playoffs Sunday is on their minds.
“Absolutely, we’re talking about it,” Smith told reporters this week, adding, “this is new territory for us.”
Coming off a loss Thanksgiving night in Baltimore, the 49ers face the 2-9 Rams for the first time this season. The Rams may be hard-pressed to stop the 49ers running game.
Arizona’s Beanie Wells ran for a Cardinals-record 228 yards against St. Louis last week, and the Rams have the NFL’s worst rushing defense in the league. The week before, St. Louis gave up 253 yards rushing to the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray.
Stopping a 1-2 punch of Gore and rookie Kendall Hunter on the ground may be a difficult task for St. Louis.
Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis told reporters in St. Louis this week that shaking off their troubles and trying to gear up for the 49ers will be hard but necessary.
“You have to forget about it and move on, but as a competitor they’re going to really get under your skin,” he said. “I hate losing, I hate losing and am never going to get used to losing.”
The Rams also have some key injury problems. Quarterback Sam Bradford didn’t practice Thursday, and neither did defensive end Chris Long – who leads the team in sacks with 10 – because of ankle injuries. Their status for Sunday is uncertain.
Aside from trying to lock up a playoff spot Sunday, the 49ers also have a streak on the line, having not allowed a rushing TD all season or for 12 straight games dating to last season. If San Francisco can stop the Rams on the ground Sunday, it will be just two games off the NFL record set by the Chicago Bears over the 1986 and 1987 seasons. The last running back to rush for a TD vs. San Francisco?
Steven Jackson of the Rams in December of last season.
“It’s always fun to play against him,” linebacker Patrick Willis told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, referring to Jackson. “Because he’s always going to bring his best. Which means you always have to bring yours.”
Oddsmakers have made the Rams 13½-point underdogs Sunday.