Although they’re already assured of missing the playoffs, the San Francisco 49ers believe winning their finale would provide some optimism heading into the offseason.
The St. Louis Rams, meanwhile, would ensure themselves some excitement with a loss.
The 49ers look to snap a franchise-worst stretch of six straight losing seasons Sunday when they visit the Rams, who are one loss away from securing the first pick of the 2010 draft.
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San Francisco (7-9) had big hopes of reaching the playoffs following a promising 3-1 start, but it followed that stretch with a four-game skid to fall from serious contention. The 49ers were mathematically eliminated with a 27-13 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 20.
Despite that disappointment, the 49ers – who defeated Detroit 20-6 last Sunday – can end Mike Singletary’s first full season as coach on a high note. San Francisco has a chance to win eight games, something it hasn’t done since going 10-6 to win the NFC West in 2002.
"The biggest thing is winning, however we’ve got to do it,” said linebacker Patrick Willis, who has been named to the NFC Pro Bowl team. "We’ve got to get it done. We want to finish 8-8, which would be .500. That would be the first time our team has done that in a while, so that would be big. Also, too, just going into the offseason with a win always helps.”
The Rams (1-14) might help themselves by losing.
A defeat would ensure St. Louis the first pick of April’s draft. The Rams, who lost to Arizona 31-10 last Sunday, can also secure the first pick if Detroit beats Chicago at home Sunday. If St. Louis upsets San Francisco and the Lions lose, Detroit would likely get the top pick based on strength of schedule.
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo isn’t concerning himself with the draft quite yet.
"I’ll worry about that in a couple of weeks,” he said. "We’re neck and neck in trying to win a game. It’s the last one and we’re going to play it to win it.”
Winning isn’t something St. Louis does much of these days.
The Rams have lost seven straight games since beating the Lions 17-10 on Nov. 1, and 24 of their last 25. One more loss would also mean St. Louis, which has dropped a franchise-worst 12 consecutive road games, would finish with the worst record in the history of the franchise.
The 49ers handed the Rams one of their most lopsided losses of 2009, 35-0 on Oct. 4. San Francisco’s defense forced three turnovers, and the offense stepped up even as Frank Gore missed the game with a foot and ankle injury.
Gore, who has rushed for 345 yards in his last three games, has gained 1,013 on the season to become the first San Francisco player to reach the 1,000-yard mark four times in a career. He’ll look to add to his total against a Rams team that is 27th against the run, allowing an average of 138.4 yards per game.
While Gore leads the rushing attack, Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis is one of quarterback Alex Smith’s top targets through the air.
With 12 touchdown receptions – including one against St. Louis in October – Davis needs one more to tie Antonio Gates’ single-season NFL record for tight ends.
Former Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce might also be on the field for the 49ers after being inactive the past five games. Singletary called it a "very good chance” Bruce, a four-time Pro Bowler in his 14 seasons with the Rams, will play.
St. Louis Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson is expected to play this week after being a surprise scratch against the Cardinals. Jackson, who has been playing with a herniated disk that will not require surgery, had 79 yards on 23 carries against the 49ers earlier this season.
Second in the NFL with 1,353 rushing yards, Jackson has been the lone bright spot for an offense averaging an NFL-worst 11.3 points.
Quarterback has been a major problem for St. Louis, and Spagnuolo has not yet said who will start the finale.
Rookie signal caller Keith Null threw three interceptions against the Cardinals and has committed 10 turnovers in three starts. Veteran Kyle Boller was active last week, but Spagnuolo said he never considered switching to him.