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Should the Rams rest their starters against the 49ers in season finale?

Will the Rams opt to rest their starters in Week 18 against the 49ers?

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams have a big decision ahead of them going into Week 18’s matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. With the win last week against the New York Giants and the Seattle Seahawks loss, the Rams clinched a playoff spot.

Clinching a playoff spot with one week to play arises the question of whether or not the Rams should rest their starters. On one hand they are in the dance and that’s what is most important. Contrarily, the Rams can still control who they play and what seed they will be in the postseason.

This is likely something that Sean McVay won’t reveal his hand about until at least Friday or potentially even right up until game time. On the Coach McVay Show on Monday the Rams head coach said,

I’ve got nothing for you right now...All of those things are what you work through. I think it is that balance of knowing that, yes, there is a difference between six and seven between nine and ten (wins). We’re going to do everything we can to try and go win this football game and play really good football. How exactly that effects the specifics are things that we’re working through. Because if you said ‘what is the most important thing’, the most important thing is to make sure we’re ready to go for the wild card game.”

McVay added in his Monday press conference,

“We’re working through those things right now. The interesting thing is, different than in the preseason and stuff like that, you have a lot more numbers. You still have 53 guys on your active roster. You got to have 48 up on game day. You have the availability to flex some people up so that’s something that we’re working through. That could be a possibility. But we still have to be ready to go and put together a good week of preparation and try to do a good job of playing well on Sunday. I’ll have some more clarity for you guys on Wednesday there.”

How you take those answers is in the eye of the beholder. With that said, it seems like he may be leaning towards resting key starters. McVay will have a lot of different things to weigh when it comes to making that decision heading into Week 18. However, it is worth noting that this game isn’t meaningless and the Rams do still have a lot to play for against the 49ers. There is a significant difference between the six and seven seed.

Since the NFL playoffs were reformatted in 2020, six seeds actually have a winning record. Six seeds are 4-2 and have won at least one game in every year since the new playoff format was introduced. Notable, in the first year of the new format, the Rams beat the Seahawks in the 2020 Wild Card round. Going past the new format, a six seed has won at least one playoff game in each of the last six years.

Meanwhile, seven seeds are 0-6 with an average margin of defeat of 12.2 points. Playoff seeding, even when it comes to just the six or seven seed, matters. The 49ers made the NFC Championship game in 2021 as the six seed.

There’s also the element of being able to control to an extent who the Rams play in the wild card round. As the six seed they are most likely set to play the Detroit Lions. As the seven seed, they would most likely travel to Texas to play the Dallas Cowboys. There is an oft-chance that the Rams would play the Philadelphia Eagles as the seven seed. However, that would require an Eagles win over the Giants and for the Cowboys to lose to the Washington Commanders.

If the Rams were to end up as the seven seed, the Cowboys are the most likely opponent. Earlier this season, the Rams lost 43-20 to the Cowboys. While Dallas has its weaknesses and its defense has taken a step back since early in the year, they are a much different team at home. The Cowboys are the only undefeated team at home this season and have scored 30 points or more at AT&T Stadium in all but one game. Dallas has averaged 37.4 points per game at home on offense in 2023 while allowing just 15.9 points on defense. The Rams scored 20 points against the Cowboys in their loss earlier this year and that’s still the second-most points that Dallas has given up at home.

Meanwhile, as the sixth seed, the Lions provide their own challenges, but are the more favorable opponent. Since Week 11, defensively they rank just 24th in EPA and 28th against the pass. They have home losses this season to the Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. As a team without playoff experience and the pressure of hosting a playoff game for the first time in 30 years, that’s a lot to handle mentally.

There’s also the example in 2017. The Rams rested their starters after clinching a playoff spot against the 49ers in Week 17. Los Angeles went on to host a playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. In that game, the Rams started out sluggish, going three-and-out in three of their first four possessions. The other possession lasted four plays. It took until 2:34 left in the first half for the Rams to score their first points of the game. The Rams lost that game 26-13.

It’s also worth noting the gap between games if McVay decides to rest his starters. Between December 22 and January 13-15, the Rams key starters would have played just one game. That’s a gap of 22-24 days with just one game played and it’s not as if the Rams were very sharp against the Giants. Rest is good, but too much rest can lead to rust.

Since the new playoff format was introduced in 2020, teams to rest or partially rest their starters are just 2-4. Those teams are:

  • 2020 Steelers lost to Browns, 48-37
  • 2021 Eagles lost to Buccaneers, 31-15
  • 2021 Bengals defeated Raiders, 26-19
  • 2022 Ravens lost to Bengals, 24-17
  • 2022 Buccaneers lost to Cowboys, 31-14
  • 2022 Giants defeated Vikings, 31-24

McVay has a difficult decision to make against a division rival. The Rams could completely rest key starters such as Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Kyren Williams, Aaron Donald, Rob Havenstein, etc. They could also opt to rest just players dealing with an injury like Tyler Higbee or rest starters for just a half.

It will be interesting to see how McVay balances the decision. Of course, it’s important for the Rams to be healthy in the postseason. But they also will want to give themselves the best chance to win and that will be as the sixth seed and playing in Detroit.