LOS ANGELES (AP) — With Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and other stars with the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams sitting out to rest up for the playoffs, Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers could turn into the Jimmy Garoppolo Show.
The Rams (11-4) have clinched the division title and a home playoff game in their remarkable turnaround season, and aren’t overly concerned whether they’re the third or fourth seed.
So Gurley — making a strong case for NFL MVP — Goff, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center John Sullivan and defensive tackle Aaron Donald are among the stars who will sit.
That’s OK with Garoppolo, who has led the 49ers (5-10) to four straight victories, providing a rare sense of excitement for a team locked in last place.
“You try to every week say that you’re facing a faceless opponent,” said Garoppolo, who had been Tom Brady’s backup with the Patriots until being traded to the 49ers on Oct. 31.
“No matter who it is you want to have the same mindset. No matter what type of game it is, first game of the season, last game of the season. I think we’ve done that pretty well the last couple of weeks; just coming in, preparing every day, practicing hard, going through the little critiques of certain plays and I think if we keep doing that we’ll be good on Sunday.”
The 49ers’ play behind Garoppolo — including a 44-33 victory against playoff-bound Jacksonville last Sunday — has given the 49ers such hope that running back Carlos Hyde thinks they’ll win the Super Bowl next year.
“That’s Carlos’ opinion,” said Garoppolo, keeping his focus on Sunday.
Here are some things to look for when the 49ers play the Rams at the LA Memorial Coliseum:
HISTORIC TURNAROUND: No team has ever started a season as poorly as the 49ers and finished it so well. Of the 18 teams before this season that started a 16-game season with nine straight losses as San Francisco did, none of the others won more than three games that season. The Niners can double that total with a win in the finale, which would also make them the second team in the past 23 years to miss the playoffs despite ending the season on a five-game winning streak.
“We think we’re playing better. But, by no means have we arrived,” first-year coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We better keep getting better.”
JIMMY G: The reasons for the turnaround fall squarely on Garoppolo’s arrival. After getting spotty play the first 11 games from Brian Hoyer and rookie C.J. Beathard, the 49ers have gotten top-flight performances from Garoppolo. He has won his first four starts and his 1,250 yards passing are the most by any player in his first four starts for a franchise. Since taking over, Garoppolo ranks fourth in yards passing per game (312.5) and third in yards per attempt (8.7).
ROOKIES SHINE: San Francisco got strong contributions from its rookie class in last week’s win over Jacksonville. Trent Taylor and George Kittle each caught touchdown passes and Matt Breida sealed the win with a 30-yard TD run. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon also intercepted a pass, while Solomon Thomas had a sack and Reuben Foster made five tackles.
“We put a lot of pressure on those guys early in the year, playing them sometimes a little bit more than they were totally ready for,” Shanahan said. “We had to be patient with them in that aspect. But those guys haven’t wavered.”
REST: The Rams have gone from 4-12 to division champions in one season under first-year coach Sean McVay, and would like to keep it rolling in the playoffs. Thus the decision to rest the stars on Sunday.
“Everything that we do is intentional and designed to try to be best for our team and for our players,” McVay said. “I think they understand that. I know sometimes people might not always agree, but when situations like this come up, we talk about it’s a nice luxury to be able to have. But you want to make sure that you handle it the right way for our team. It might not be for every team, but we feel like that’s the best approach for us.”
Sean Mannion will make his first career start at quarterback, appearing in just his seventh game in three seasons as a backup with the Rams. Goff is expected to be active as Mannion’s backup, since third-stringer Brandon Allen is on injured reserve.
INCENTIVES: McVay said the team will take care of players who might miss out on contract incentives by sitting out. “Certainly you want to make good on those things where you don’t want them to not reach their incentives because of a coach’s decision to hold you and get you healthy for the playoffs. We definitely are mindful and aware of those guys that were affected and want to make sure that we take care of that and handle that in a first-class way.”