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3 keys to a 49ers victory: It’s the Sam Darnold show vs. the Rams

The 49ers will be playing a number of backups on Sunday against Los Angeles.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers clinched the No. 1 seed against the Washington Commanders last weekend, getting help from the Philadelphia Eagles, who lost to the Arizona Cardinals.

Now, their focus shifts towards the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18, who have also clinched a playoff spot and will be either the No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NFC, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game.

The 49ers will be resting quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Christian McCaffrey, while Arik Armstead (foot, knee), Ji’Ayir Brown (knee), Ross Dwelley (ankle), Tashaun Gipson (quad), Ambry Thomas (hand), and Jauan Jennings (concussion) have all been ruled out.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk (illness), guard John Feliciano (back), and wide receiver Danny Gray (shoulder) are questionable.

As a result, the 49ers activated wideout Ray-Ray McCloud from the Injured Reserve list, while Tayler Hawkins and Jeremy McNichols were promoted from the practice squad.

Dwelley was moved to the Injured Reserve list in place of McCloud, effectively ending his season.

Heading into the game, the 49ers are seen as 4.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, with the over/under placed at 41 points.

Here’s what you need to know about the 49ers’ opponent on Sunday.

Opponent Preview

The Los Angeles Rams have been one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the second half of the season, as they’ve won six of their last seven games, which helped them clinch a playoff spot last weekend.

Now locked into the playoffs, the Rams are resting several key players as well, as quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Kyren Williams, wide receiver Cooper Kupp, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and linebacker Ernest Jones have all been ruled out.

Additionally, offensive lineman Joe Noteboom (foot) and tight end Tyler Higbee (shoulder) will not play due to injuries.

That means backup quarterback Carson Wentz will earn the start against Sam Darnold, but he will be throwing to almost all of Los Angeles’s backups, except for wideout Puka Nacua, who is 29 yards away from the all-time rookie receiving record.

Defensively, the Rams seem to be playing their entire starting defense outside of Aaron Donald and Ernest Jones, and are still playing to win, as they could clinch the NFC’s No. 6 seed with a victory.

Should they lose, the Rams would need a Chicago Bears win over the Green Bay Packers to remain as the No. 6 seed.

Keys to the Game

Health: Winning games is always important, but the No. 1 objective of this matchup has to be to come out as healthy as possible.

With ultimately nothing to play for, the 49ers cannot afford to lose any key players to injury for the stretch run of the season.

San Francisco is already sitting Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey, but they cannot place others as inactives due to the number of players already ruled out to injury.

I don’t expect any starters to play the full game, but it’ll be intriguing to see how the 49ers distribute snaps across their starters and backups on Sunday.

The Rams are looking to employ a similar strategy, as they’ve ruled out a number of players ahead of the contest as well.

We can look to the Los Angeles Chargers last season, who played all of their starters in a meaningless Week 18 game and lost wideout Mike Williams to a back injury for the playoffs.

Health will be crucial on both sides of the game, but especially for the 49ers, who are setting up to make a potential Super Bowl run as the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Turnovers: Turnovers are always a crucial portion of the matchup, but with Sam Darnold under center for the 49ers, it may be an even bigger key this Sunday.

Darnold, a quarterback with tons of experience as a starter, has faced turnover issues throughout his career, having thrown 56 interceptions and fumbled 36 times in 65 career games.

He’ll earn his first start of the season on Sunday, and will look to wipe the slate clean after throwing an interception against the Baltimore Ravens in a comeback attempt on Christmas.

Meanwhile, the Rams will be starting Carson Wentz, who has thrown 66 interceptions and fumbled 72 times over 94 career games.

Wentz was recently signed by the Rams, and has played once for Los Angeles, hopping in during garbage time in the team’s 37-14 win over the Cardinals.

Both quarterbacks have been turnover-prone in their careers, which could set up for a defensive feast on Sunday.

Run game: The 49ers were able to get the run game working even without Christian McCaffrey last week, as Elijah Mitchell rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against the Commanders.

Now, they’ll face a Rams defense that ranks 12th in the NFL, allowing 105.7 yards per game, who are much better than the Commanders against the run.

Again, it’s not clear how much the Rams’ defensive starters will play against San Francisco, but the 49ers will likely utilize a tandem of Elijah Mitchell and Jordan Mason to get the job done on the ground Sunday.

Both players have had their moments this season, and the latter could get an extended output with McCaffrey sidelined for Week 18.

On the other side, the Rams have been one of the better rushing attacks as of late, but will not play top running back Kyren Williams, leaving Ronnie Rivers and Royce Freeman to lead the charge att the position.

With two turnover-prone quarterbacks, the run game could be extremely important in deciding this contest, especially given how well both teams defend the run.