Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan could sit every starter possible on Sunday but the two people who they can’t bench is themselves. Forget about Matthew Stafford, Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey, Kyren Williams, Aaron Donald, and Nick Bosa. Maybe they can’t do much to help their respective teams win on Sunday.
But Week 18’s contest between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers is no different for McVay and Shanahan than any other game: Each of them wants to beat the other just as badly as they have in their other 14 meetings as head coaches.
However, McVay needs it a lot more than Shanahan needs it. Going into the playoffs as a six or seven seed, McVay has an opportunity to prove that under arguably the most difficult circumstances for either he or Shanahan all season—to gameplan with your backups to beat their backups—he can actually out-coach Kyle Shanahan and earn the six seed.
McVay doesn’t need to prove himself as a Super Bowl winner, he already did that.
Remarkably, he could already have a solid case for Canton.
But one thing he hasn’t done nearly enough of is beat his biggest rival.
Sean McVay vs. Kyle Shanahan
Both hired as first-time head coaches in 2017, McVay won three of the first four meetings against the 49ers. However, the 49ers quarterbacks who Shanahan was stuck with in those three games were Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard, and Nick Mullens.
The one time in those two seasons that the Rams faced Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco won 34-13. (The Rams started Sean Mannion, to be fair.)
Since then, Kyle Shanahan is 9-0 against Sean McVay in the regular season. McVay is 1-0 against Shanahan in the playoffs.
I don’t care who is starting at quarterback or any other position because this still coach against coach, and McVay not only has a reputation to uphold, he also has something he has yet to earn. Especially with the Niners entering the playoffs as a one-seed and L.A.’s fate yet determined.
The Rams want the 6 seed
The Rams are doing the right thing by making sure that none of their key players get injured, but that doesn’t mean that McVay should be satisfied with either the six or the seven because it is in L.A.’s best interest to try and avoid going to San Francisco for as long as possible.
If the Rams win, they will be the six seed and face the Detroit Lions.
If the Rams lose, but the Bears beat the Packers, then the Rams will play the Lions.
However, if the Rams lose and the Packers win, then the Rams will face either the Cowboys or Eagles and it will probably be a trip to Dallas. Which might not be all that much different than facing the Lions to be honest, but there’s a sliver of hope that IF the Rams advance that they won’t have to play the 49ers in round two.
Because the winner of the NFC East is bound to be a flawed team, either the Cowboys or Eagles, then whoever the seven seed is stands a better than normal chance of pulling out the upset. That means that if the Rams win their wild card game, then they could be the ones to go to the winner of the 4-5 game: Either the winner of the NFC South or the top wild card, probably Eagles.
Imagine that: A playoff road of Lions-Eagles or a playoff road of Cowboys-49ers.
Which would you rather have?
And don’t give me that “you gotta beat the best” crap. If the Rams have to play the 49ers, so be it, they won’t be afraid. However, nobody has EVER cared which teams a Super Bowl champion beat in the playoffs. Nobody! There are no asterisks. And so many champions had easier playoff paths than the losers.
The Rams should hope to see that a team could actually upset the 49ers before they have to play them. If by ANY chance the seven seed upsets the 49ers, then the six seed could actually HOST the NFC Championship.
The Rams should sit key starters, but they should also do all in their power to win the game and guarantee themselves a better playoff position.
Will Rams win?
The biggest problem for the Rams could just be Carson Wentz’s unpredictable value to an offense. I mean, Sam Darnold has at least been with the 49ers for months and whether or not that means anything (it didn’t mean anything for Joe Flacco, it probably helped him), it’s a difference between these two teams.
Wentz is a lot of things, but he doesn’t exactly have a reputation for winning the big one.
Do the Niners have better depth? Maybe.
Are the Niners overlooking the Rams? Possibly.
Is Sam Darnold bad? Usually.
But setting aside all the players, it’s up to the coaches to put the ones on the field in the best position to win. McVay hasn’t done than against Shanahan in a regular season game since 2018. He needs to do it now to start 2024.