Technically, the 49ers' season won't be on the line this Monday Night, but it feels like they're facing a must-win game.
The 49ers are 1-2 and do not seem like particularly a tight-knit team. For starters, the head coach and the quarterback clearly aren't on the same page. Jimmy Garoppolo said two weeks ago that he needs more freedom in the offense. When I asked Kyle Shanahan about that, he said he didn't know what Garoppolo meant by freedom. Then last week, a camera caught Garoppolo shouting, "Your plays suck, man!" after an incomplete pass to a double-covered receiver on third down.
The U.S.S. Shanahan is taking on water. One more loss, and it could begin to sink. Captain Kyle needs answers fast.
Fortunately for him, the Rams have their own set of problems even though they're 2-1. Here are the top five factors that will determine the winner of this game.
The 49ers have a ton at stake and the Rams don't, so the 49ers should come out with much more energy at home on primetime than their opponent. That's what happened last season when the 49ers had a must-win Week 10 home game against the Rams. The 49ers overwhelmed them early and delivered the knockout blow before halftime.
2. The Rams have no home-run threat on offense
Last season when the Rams beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, the Rams had Odell Beckham Jr. and Van Jefferson -- two wide receivers that could score from anywhere on the field. Now, Beckham is a free agent rehabbing a knee injury, and Jefferson is on I.R. rehabbing a knee-injury. Which means the Rams offense has become methodical and ineffective -- it averages just 5.3 yards per play. The only dangerous weapon the Rams have is Cooper Kupp, who's not a true deep threat. So if the 49ers bracket him and limit his production, they'll win.
3. Matthew Stafford is an interception machine
He led the league last season with 17 interceptions, and has thrown five already through just three games. Stafford is Jimmy Garoppolo with a strong arm. If Stafford has time, he will make beautiful throws. But when he's under pressure, he will make some of the worst decisions you'll ever see. And he should be under tremendous pressure in this game, because the Rams offensive line has gotten worse while the 49ers pass rush has gotten better since last season.
4. The 49ers have a better run game than the Rams
The 49ers also have an interception machine at quarterback, but they don't pass much -- they have run the ball 33.7 times per game and gained 4.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Rams have absolutely zero run game -- they've handed off just 21.3 times per game and gained a miniscule 3.4 yards per carry. This is because Sean McVay has a gimmick run scheme that's based on attacking nickel defenses with one-back formations. Unfortunately for him, defenses figured out this gimmick years ago. Now he's stuck with a weak, vanilla rushing attack, because there are very few blocking combinations an offense can execute without a fullback or a second tight end. So now he's using wide receiver Ben Skowronek as a part-time fullback. I'm sure the 49ers elite run defense is shaking in its boots. The Rams simply are one-dimensional, and the 49ers are not, which means Stafford will have many more opportunities to lose the game than Garoppolo will.
5. Robbie Gould
He wants to be in the Hall of Fame, so this will be a great showcase for him because he will need to kick lots of field goals for the 49ers to win. I predict he'll make three.
FINAL SCORE PREDICTION: 49ers 16, Rams 13
Stafford will throw two picks, Gould will be the MVP and the U.S.S. Shanahan will be right back in the race for the division lead.