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St. Louis Rams - San Francisco 49ers: A "Must Win" For Both Teams?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It's seems odd to think about just how much this coming game between St. Louis and San Francisco means to both teams. In this, the 129th regular season meeting between these two teams - a series that began in 1950 - there's an air of "must win" for both. The Rams need to find out just who they are - regardless of their 1-3 record - and facing their perennial rival on Monday Night will be a defining moment, if not a litmus test, to see if Jeff Fisher has found the right mix of players and coaches... San Francisco is fighting the angst of appearing "hit or miss". Each week, you're not really sure which team you'll see: vaunted NFC West foe, or one that lets a game slip away...

The 49ers have endured media spun, 3rd grade drivel about their head coach not being popular with his players. They've lost key players to off season disruption, and a few injuries that's brought a once Zeus-ian defense down from the clouds. NaVorro Bowman is missed, as is Aldon Smith, but they've battled on.

The Rams are trying to get out of "test drive" mode. Young players fill their roster, but at some point this team has to show they've grown up. Virtually EVERYONE can see that the youthful Rams play with passion, but it's very hard to detect team chemistry; the kind so evident is great teams of the past. St. Louis has a back up quarterback leading them, and to be honest, he doesn't appear very "third string" so far. Austin Davis oozes passion and excitement, and if he stacks another game like he had last weekend, his teammates may just begin to collectively buy in. Brian Quick will garner attention by the 49ers' defensive schemers, so will another receiver find it in him to step up? Kenny Britt could be "the guy" this week, or maybe it's Stedman Bailey - recently returned from his league inspired hiatus. It may shock a few of you, but the Rams offense is ranked #8 in the NFL.

For me, the way to play the 49ers is "fast"; blinding speed, and "no huddle" to keep them from utilizing their amazing roster depth. If Tavon Austin is healthy, he could have a very interesting night of the national TV stage. Make no mistake: Austin is going to get pounded every time he touches the ball. Guys who are 5'7" may be lightning bug fast, but the law of tonnage - and physics - don't really work in their favor. San Francisco has the #2 defense in the NFL right now - #4 against the pass, and #5 versus the run - so every inch of turf the Rams earn will come at a cost.

This game will be a bruising, hard fought battle regardless of the final score. I think the Rams defense is about to wake up too. The last few years, it's taken the Rams "D" a few weeks to get in sync. Getting tougher against the run is key against the 49ers. They can't keep giving up their current average of 152.5 yards on the ground per game (Ranking them 29th in the NFL). Once again, the St. Louis linebacker corps will be in the spotlight, as well as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. His seeming reliance on Robert Quinn to generate pressure on his own has to change. Quinn is still without a viable counter-pressure option at left defensive end. Chris Long's absence is being felt. With no real outside linebacker threat to Quinn's right, teams have found it easy to deal with him thus far.

Getting back to the "must win" situation both teams find themselves in... Have a look at the 49ers' schedule:

Dallas Cowboys Sunday, September 07 2014 win 28-17

Chicago Bears Sunday, September 14 2014 loss 20-28

Arizona Cardinals Sunday, September 21 2014 loss 14-23

Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, September 28 2014 win 26-21

Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, October 05 2014 win 22-17

St. Louis Rams Monday, October 13 2014 8:30 PM EDT

Denver Broncos Sunday, October 19 2014 8:30 PM EDT

St. Louis Rams Sunday, November 02 2014 4:05 PM EST

New Orleans Saints Sunday, November 09 2014 1:00 PM EST

New York Giants Sunday, November 16 2014 1:00 PM EST

Washington Redskins Sunday, November 23 2014 4:25 PM EST

Seattle Seahawks Thursday, November 27 2014 8:30 PM EST

Oakland Raiders Sunday, December 07 2014 4:25 PM EST

Seattle Seahawks Sunday, December 14 2014 4:25 PM EST

San Diego Chargers Saturday, December 20 2014 4:30 PM EST

Arizona Cardinals Sunday, December 28 2014

After the double dip with the Rams and a drop-in at Denver, they cruise to the "Big Easy" and take on Drew Brees and Co.. After that, they whisk their way up to the "Big Apple" to take on a resurgent Giants team. Then it's over to take on the Washington Native Americans/Redskins/RGIII-s for a little breather before a two-fer with Seattle, finishing with the probable #2 AFC playoff seed - San Diego, and finish at home against Arizona... Making sense why this Rams game is a must win? No? Well, outside of Washington and Oakland, there isn't a sure-fire win on their remaining schedule. With high post season hopes, the level of pressure to win every game is increasing with each passing week. The two games against St. Louis are shaping up to be a tipping point for the 49ers' 2014 season. If they lose even one of these meetings, San Francisco could very well find themselves missing the post season.

Penalties have plagued the Rams this year, as they did in 2013... AND 2012, now that I think about it? Known as a "players coach", Jeff Fisher needs to get control of team on the field. Mental lapses have literally crushed this team so far in 2014. The Rams' offensive line has been the most disappointing aspect of this team, and not the lack of quarterback sacks by the defense. The key here seems to be game preparation. This offensive line group should be far better than they've shown thus far. On closer examination, it's readily apparent early in games how opposing defensive coordinators are out-coaching the Rams' offensive counterparts. Whats more, they've found it easy going when they crowd the middle and "bull rush" the Rams' guards, and especially center Scott Wells. It's open season on the Rams interior linemen.

While offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer appears to be setting up better play calling, he's failing to prepare what other teams see as possible attacking points. He and his staff aren't doing a bad job of adjusting DURING a game, but by the time they do, the game is out of hand. To my mind, it seems Schottenheimer missed an opportunity to send a message to players on his side of the ball when Fisher axed the penalty-plagued Ray Ray Armstrong.

Monday Night Football is an incredible stage, and how each of these teams start the game - and I'm talking the first 5 minutes of the first quarter - will be telling indeed. The Rams aren't geared to comeback from a 21 point deficit against a defense like the 49ers possess. San Francisco has to set the rhythm of the game from the first snap, or they could find themselves trying to adjust there way through to a bad end. The Rams players are young, yes. But it presents both a possible problem for well disciplined teams, or an opportunity. If the 49ers let a young, passionate, playing-with-their-hair-on-fire Rams team set the tone early, the chances for a San Francisco win diminish markedly. They can't rely on the almost given smattering of big play giveaways the Rams seem to offer up each week to win this game. If they do, this game will turn into a parade of cat, with scoring and turnovers happening all over the field. If this turns into a mistake filled fur ball by both teams, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh better have a healthy supply of barf bags handy on the sidelines.