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NFL Preview - San Francisco (8-2-1) at St. Louis (4-6-1)



By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - No, this Sunday's encounter between the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams won't count for two wins, but the NFC West rivals get to settle some unfinished business after recently battling to the NFL's first tie in four years.

The division-leading 49ers played host to the Rams on Nov. 11, with San Francisco rallying for 17 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime, deadlocking the game at 24-24 on David Akers' 33-yard field goal with three seconds left.

Then things got weird.

Akers missed a 41-yard try midway through the extra frame before Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein seemed to have clinched the upset with a 53-yard field goal on the ensuing series. However, the kick was called back due to a delay of game penalty and Zuerlein came up empty on a try from 58 yards back.

In the end, the teams settled for the first tie since the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals ended a Nov. 16, 2008 meeting at 13-13, a game in which then-Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb famously admitted he didn't know a game could end in a tie.

The Rams and Niners know that all too well now and this rematch could be seen as a continuation of that meeting, even if it only counts as a single victory.

"We are. We just took a couple of weeks off and we're going. This is quarter number six," said Rams head coach Jeff Fisher.

Fisher might not be as eager as he seems for this matchup given that the Niners are 7-1-1 in their last nine meetings with the Rams.

The Week 10 tie was also the start of what has turned into a much-talked about quarterback situation in San Francisco.

Starter Alex Smith exited the Rams game early due to a concussion and was replaced by second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Nevada product threw for 117 yards and ran for a score versus the Rams, then got the start over an ailing Smith the following Monday night versus the Chicago Bears.

Kaepernick performed better than expected, throwing for 243 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 32-7 rout that led to head coach Jim Harbaugh saying the team would go with a the hot hand.

That turned out to be Kaepernick last Sunday versus the Saints despite Smith being cleared for contract earlier in the week, and Kaepernick made it two victories in two career starts by throwing a touchdown pass and running for another score in a 31-21 win.

Kaepernick was also helped by a defense that posted five sacks and returned two interceptions for touchdowns as San Francisco moved to 4-0-1 in its last five games.

Harbaugh then announced on Wednesday that the 25-year-old Kaepernick would get the start again this weekend.

"Well, the rationale is you've got two quarterbacks that we feel great about as the starting quarterback," said Harbaugh. "Both have earned it. Both deserve it. And Alex over a long period of time. Colin by virtue of the last three games. What tips the scale, is Colin, we believe, has the hot hand and we'll go with Colin. And we'll go with Alex. They're both our guys."

Meanwhile, the Rams look to remain unbeaten against the NFC West this weekend after moving to 3-0-1 versus the division with last Sunday's 31-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals. It snapped a five-game winless stretch for St. Louis (0-4-1), which earned its first win since beating the same Cardinals club on Oct. 4.

Like the Niners, the Rams were sparked by a pair of interception returns for scores, both by rookie Janoris Jenkins. He had two of four picks on the day for St. Louis.

"It seems like for weeks we have been talking about turnovers. We kept saying often times they come in bunches and they did today," Fisher said.

Steven Jackson ran for a season-high 139 yards and Sam Bradford turned just eight completions on 17 attempts into 205 yards, connecting on a pair of TD throws. Bradford also had to exit the game for a play in the second quarter after taking a hard hit, but quickly returned.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Eyes will stay on Kaepernick for another week and it will be interesting to see how Harbaugh handles his quarterbacks. In fact, there is a chance that both could see action against the Rams.

"I would assume nothing, or rule out anything," noted Harbaugh.

While Smith is certainly safer with the ball and is consistent if nothing else, Kaepernick does bring a run element to the mix as he has rushed for four touchdowns on 31 carries with 214 yards.

Fisher acknowledged that makes Kaepernick tough to defend, but pointed out that Smith can run the ball too. Smith has logged 134 yards on 29 carries this season, but without a touchdown.

"(Smith) extends plays as well, but not to the extent that Colin does. But, it's a challenge. Guys have to be aware," the Rams coach said.

Fisher's offense has to be aware of San Francisco's linebacking unit, led by Pro Bowler Patrick Willis and complimented by leading tackler NaVorro Bowman and sack machine Aldon Smith.

Bowman, who received a five-year contract extension this week, leads the 49ers with 100 tackles, ahead of Willis' 89, while Aldon Smith and fellow LB Ahmad Brooks both logged 1 1/2 sacks versus the Saints.

Smith now has an NFL-high 16 1/2 sacks on the season, one shy of matching Fred Dean's single-season franchise record set in 1983.

The Rams' defense would love to have the same kind of impact and build on last weekend's showing. St. Louis did not log a single turnover during its five- game winless streak after posting eight interceptions and a fumble recovery over its initial five contests of the season.

Jenkins became the first player in Rams history to return two picks for scores in the same game -- and only the third rookie to do so in NFL history -- and helped the franchise grab four picks in one game for the first time since a six-interception performance on Dec. 15, 1996.

While Fisher loved the play of the secondary, especially after the Cardinals were held without a point in the second half and saw their star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald held to just three catches for 31 yards, he would like to see his team force some more fumbles too.

"You just have to keep going. If you want to look at the turnover thing, we're still not getting fumbles. We were fortunate to come up with the interceptions, but we still need to get on balls and knock them loose," noted Fisher.

Should the game again come down to field goals, the Rams may have the edge.

Akers, who tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal earlier this season, has a pelvic injury and the 49ers brought in kickers Billy Cundiff and Nate Kaeding for tryouts this week. Harbaugh said the team wants to have a "plan B" in case Akers can't go.

One Ram to watch is wide receiver Chris Givens, who is coming off his first career 100-yard receiving game. That included a 37-yard touchdown catch and he has five receptions of 50 yards or more this season.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

There should be plenty of motivation for this rematch as battling to a tie had to leave both teams a bit frustrated and possibly embarrassed.

Count the current occupier of the spotlight Kaepernick as one player ready to hit the field and settle things.

"Yeah, I'm very eager to get back out there against them," he said.

Why?

"Want to get a win this time."

Kaepernick is playing with house money right now and feel bad for Alex Smith all you want, but if Kaepernick can continue to play at this level, he turns the 49ers into Super Bowl favorites. And he has already conquered a hostile field in New Orleans, so making the trek to St. Louis shouldn't be a concern at all.

The 49ers look like they are ready to start pulling away for the NFC West title and the Rams have to wonder what the standings would look like if they could have picked up some earlier non-division wins. It's not too late to make a run, but St. Louis needs to turn some things around.

"We've kept saying that it's nothing we're not doing, it's just the ball just has to bounce our way," said Rams defensive end Chris Long. "We have to create our own luck. All of a sudden they come in bundles, ... We'll keep grinding away."

Don't expect the bounces to start this weekend.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 27, Rams 13

11/29 13:38:01 ET


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