The San Francisco 49ers missed out on an opportunity to wrap up their first NFC West title in nine years last week, but they should have a better chance to celebrate Sunday.
The 49ers welcome the last-place St. Louis Rams to Candlestick Park as they try to become one of the league's first teams to clinch a playoff berth.
San Francisco (9-2) went into Week 12 needing a win at Baltimore on Thanksgiving and a Seattle loss on Sunday to clinch the NFC West with nearly a third of the season still to play. The Seahawks lost 23-17 to Washington, but all that did was help the 49ers maintain their five-game division lead after falling 16-6 to the Ravens.
That defeat also ended an eight-game win streak, the team's longest since an 11-game run in 1997. Alex Smith was sacked a franchise record-tying nine times as the 49ers finished with a season low for points and yards (170).
"The men put a lot into it. They were disappointed," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "They'll bounce back. This is a team that's a resilient team, and we'll learn from it."
San Francisco will try to get back on track by clinching its first postseason berth since winning the NFC West in 2002. If the 49ers lose to St. Louis (2-9), they can still wrap up that spot with losses from Seattle and Arizona.
"It's a big deal. It's a step. We may be ahead on the chip count, but we don't have a seat at the final table," Harbaugh said. "We need to focus on this game. We need to do everything we can to physically, mentally, emotionally prepare for this game because we know that the St. Louis Rams will be doing the same thing."
The Rams enter looking to recover from back-to-back division losses.
The league's worst rushing defense, giving up 159.0 yards per game, allowed another record-setting performance Sunday just five weeks after letting Dallas' DeMarco Murray scamper for a rookie franchise-record 253 yards.
Beanie Wells ran for a Cardinals-record 228 on Sunday, and his 53-yard sprint in the fourth quarter set up the decisive field goal in Arizona's 23-20 win.
"You have to forget about it and move on, but as a competitor they're going to really get under your skin," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I hate losing, I hate losing, and am never going to get used to losing. ... Nobody should in this locker room, in this organization."
The 49ers will certainly hope to see Frank Gore shake his recent struggles and continue to exploit St. Louis' run defense.
Since his franchise-record streak of five games with 100 or more yards ended, Gore has just 127 yards over his last three games - though nagging knee and ankle injuries haven't helped.
Gore has averaged 96.3 yards in his seven career starts against the Rams and scored at least one touchdown in six of those. Gore, though, missed the most recent matchup Dec. 26 because of a hip injury, and the 49ers had a five-game win streak in the series snapped with a 25-17 loss.
St. Louis' Sam Bradford passed for 292 yards and a pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown while breaking the NFL's single-season record for completions by a rookie. The 49ers fired former coach Mike Singletary following that defeat, paving the way for Harbaugh to come over from Stanford.
San Francisco has won three straight home games over the Rams and seven of nine, but needed overtime to prevail in the most recent matchup in San Francisco last November.
Michael Crabtree caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of that win, and he might need to step up again in this game with Braylon Edwards still dealing with knee and shoulder problems.
Edwards said he's had his playing time limited in recent games because of the injury but hopes to be 100 percent for the playoffs.
"I've been hurt. I had knee surgery. Now I have a bad shoulder,'' Edwards said. "I haven't ever had a season where I've been hurt, with the exception of my rookie year. This is all new to me. It's very frustrating, but I ask the team to bear with me."
The Rams, meanwhile, are hoping to get receiver Danario Alexander back from a hamstring injury that's caused him to miss the past five weeks.