The 35-0 shellacking of the Buffalo Bills leaves the 49ers poised on what is certainly their biggest regular season game since Green Bay in 1998. Even those 49ers, Steve Young and all, had a poor track record in big games. They split with Green Bay in 1998, but lost both big games to Atlanta (one late season clash and one playoff). Green Bay was 4-0 against the 49ers from 1995 to 1997. In fact, the last regular season big game the 49ers won before this year was the win over Dallas in 1995 – led by Elvis Grbac. The Rams game is, really, the measuring stick on whether the 49ers will be a 14-2 division winner or a 12-4 wild card. Lose and we stand almost no chance of winning the division – we would have to run the table while the Rams lose two more games. Unlikely. It would also guarantee that we would play a first round playoff game, which is likely to be against Green Bay. And no one in San Francisco wants Brett Favre anywhere near them come playoff time.

A good offense is the best defense against the Rams. The 49ers running game, ranked #2 in the league, needs to play like it and more. Like the rest of the offense, the running game has been getting off to very slow starts. They play their best in the fourth quarter, when they start wearing their opponents down. The 49ers cannot wait until the fourth quarter against the Rams. Garcia and Hearst need to come out and sustain all their drives – there is no room for any three and outs. The 49ers had some success with this against the Rams in September at Candlestick, and would have really succeeded without the dropped passes by Stokes and Owens.
Key Number 1 and 2: The 49ers need at least 150 yards rushing against the Rams and win the time of possession battle 35 minutes to the Rams’ 25 minutes.

Big players must come through in big games. If Terrell Owens doesn’t drop those four passes in the first matchup, the 49ers probably win. They need Owens to produce like the prime time player he is, regardless of double coverage. They also cannot afford to have the dropped passes from him and Stokes.
Key Numbers 3 and 4: Terrell Owens needs to have at least eight catches and two TDs, and the 49ers cannot afford any more than two drops.

I think we can expect a lot of four wideout sets from St. Louis. The Ram are not looking at Bruce and Holt on Plummer and Webster as much as they are looking at Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl on Rashad Holman and George McCullough. The matchup advantages at those positions are so huge that you have to think the Rams will exploit it. Holman and McCullough should be tested early and often Sunday. They need to step up.
Key Number 5: If Az-Zahir Hakim has five or less catches, we will know that the Holman and McCullough are hanging in there.

The 49ers pass rush also needs to step up. Teams that knocked off the Rams or almost knocked them off – the Saints, the Buccaneers, the Eagles and the Giants – have front fours that can generate pressure by themselves and force Kurt Warner into turnovers. The Rams overconfidence in their playmaking makes them very careless with the football, and they can turn it over in bunches. The 49ers must exploit this by applying pressure on Warner – preferably with their front four alone. Jim Mora gave the Rams a few blitz packages to think about on Sunday night vs. the Bills, but will that be a major gameplan vs. the Rams? Blitzing linebackers and safeties too much can be a death wish against the St. Louis, but if the front four fails again to produce a pass rush, the 49ers may be forced to. But turnover are the key: in the two games the Rams didn’t turn the ball over, against the Dolphins and the Falcons, they won 42-10 and 35-6.
Key Numbers 6 and 7: the 49ers need to apply some pressure (10 quarterback hurries, five knockdowns) and force at least three more turnovers than they cough up.

The Rams are still a better team than we are right now. But the gap is closing, and a mistake-free, physical effort Sunday could produce a victory and doom St. Louis to a wild card role – and a playoff game vs. Brett Favre and Green Bay in the first round.

Garcia Not Running
It was painfully obvious that Jeff Garcia was having a lot of trouble with his mobility Sunday night. Ever since he had his knee rolled over in the Chicago game, he simply has not had the ability to run out of the pocket. Garcia had enough meddle to still make some plays last night, but his lack of mobility was clear – he had to pull up short to make a first down on a first half scramble that he would have easily made when healthy. He also could not outrun Buffalo defensive end Erik Flowers on several rollouts. The Jeff Garcia we saw in the first few weeks, who would pull it down and take off when given a clear lane, probably won’t be back. While the 49ers offensive line seems to have gained momentum with each game and are now giving Garcia a little more time in the pocket, they are still not capable of holding the pocket for very long. With a healthy Garcia they didn’t have to – the quarterback is expected to either deliver the football quickly or roll out. But one wonders how defenses will react knowing that Garcia can’t run anymore.

Free Agency
(I could not find a reliable list of free agents for 2002, so I may not have all the free agents right).
Looking ahead to the off-season, the 49ers have a favorable free agent situation. The unrestricted list is short: Fred Beasley, Jeremy Newberry, Lance Schulters, and Matt Willig. Beasley and Newberry are at the top of the list as far as I’m concerned. Schulters means a lot to this defense, but consider these three factors: first off, he is not a very durable safety. He has the timing and intensity to deliver a lot of big hits, but doesn’t have the body to do it – he seems to get hurt every other big hit. Second, he happens to be at a position that the 49ers have depth at (I think the 49ers would be comfortable with John Keith at strong safety, even though he’s not the most durable fellow himself). Third, his odd holdout in the summer of 2000 shows questionable judgment on his part. He was willing to force a contract dispute at a time when it was ridiculous to do so; what’s to stop him in 2002? I have a feeling he will want a large contract and would willingly bolt to a higher bidder – especially to New York, where he played in college.

The restricted list is a little longer (Terry Jackson, Tai Streets, Chike Okeafor, Reggie McGrew, Anthony Parker). However, it doesn’t appear to contain any player that another team would be willing to hurdle the restricted free agent barrier to sign. The 1999 draft was a major disappointment, and the RFA list shows it. Only Reggie McGrew has the presence to draw some interest, and he has moped about wanting to play in Florida, but I can’t see a team compensating the 49ers for such a fragile player (physically and mentally).