Everything seems to point to an easy win for the 49ers Sunday.
San Francisco is 12-3, while the Rams – who play host to them Sunday in the regular-season finale – are 2-13.
In their previous meeting this season, the Niners won 26-0. And the Rams, who have lost six straight under a coach (Steve Spagnulo) who appears to be a dead man walking, have been outscored 150-53 in their six consecutive losses and will be without their injured starting quarterback, Sam Bradford.
NFL oddsmakers have made the 49ers 12-point favorites.
But football coaches wouldn’t be football coaches if they weren’t a bit paranoid and constantly worried that their next opponent – even a woeful-looking one – might pop up and knock them over the head.
Such is the case with 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team can secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs with a win Sunday over the Rams.
Others look at the Rams and see a team eager to turn its back on this awful season. Harbaugh looks at St. Louis and sees a “warning” sign.
The Rams will have nothing to lose except another game.
“That’s a dangerous team because you never know what could happen,” Harbaugh told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch.“Any kind of deceit or trickery could unfold. Trick plays, let-it-all-hang-out kind of mentality. Go out in a blaze of glory.”
Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis certainly indicated the Rams weren’t about to roll over, telling reporters, “No, no, no, no” when asked if his team would have any trouble getting up for its season finale.
Realistically, however, the Rams don’t appear much of a risk against a 49ers team that can run the ball, play smart – it’s only committed 10 turnovers this season – and has one of the league’s best defenses (which will be bolstered by the return of Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis from injury).
Niners running back Frank Gore, who faces the NFL’s worst run defense – which gives up 154.5 yards per game – says he and his teammates will take care of business and hope to lock up the win and the No. 2 seed.
“We’ll go down to St. Louis and try to get a win and lock up that second seed and get that bye week,” he told reporters. “As a team that will help us, especially playing at home. Our first (playoff) game, that’s big for us. I’m excited.”
The Niners are glad to have Willis back in time for the finale and the playoffs, but San Francisco’s receiving corps will be woefully thin. Michael Crabtree and journeyman Brett Swain will start, with Joe Hastings the likely No. 3 receiver (he’s expected to be promoted from the practice squad Saturday). Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn Jr., the other receivers on the roster, are dinged up.
Should the Niners lose Sunday, and the Saints win, San Francisco will drop into the No. 3 spot in the seedings and host a first-round playoff game Jan. 7 or 8 against either the Falcons or Lions.
Spagnulo certainly is hoping he can win what may be his final game as Rams coach.
“There is something to winning the last game in my opinion, whether you’re moving on to the playoffs or not,” he told reporters this week. “I think it carries you.”