LOS ANGELES — Just like last year, the final game of the regular season has little meaning for the Los Angeles Rams.
Unlike last year, the final game of the regular season is not the final game for the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams (11-4) have clinched the NFC West championship and at least one home playoff game. They play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday for their final regular-season game against the San Francisco 49ers (5-10).
The 49ers, however, suddenly are among the NFL’s hotter teams. They have won five of their past six and, since installing Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback, have won four in a row — including last week’s 44-33 win over playoff-bound Jacksonville.
The Rams, who were 4-12 last season, are guaranteed to be either the NFC’s No. 3 or 4 seed in the playoffs and will host a wild-card game either Jan. 6 or 7. They probably will rest several starters against the 49ers — but which ones?
That’s the question Rams first-year coach Sean McVay has been wrestling with this week, especially with the specter of injury shadowing every NFL game. Losing a starter to an injury incurred in a mostly meaningless game would be especially difficult to accept.
The Rams have been relatively healthy this season. Last week they lost outside linebacker Matt Longacre, who had a back injury that will require surgery. Longacre is third on the team with 5 1/2 sacks.
Another Rams starting linebacker, Mark Barron, did not play last week against Tennessee, although he was not on the injury report. Barron has an Achilles issue that worsened just before kickoff.
The Rams already had shelved another productive player to a back injury, Pro Bowl kicker Greg Zuerlein. Zuerlein still leads the NFL in scoring with 158 points. His replacement, Sam Ficken, missed his first extra-point attempt in his debut, then misfired on a 36-yard field-goal try before making his final three PATs.
McVay could be leaning toward giving left tackle Andrew Whitworth and/or center John Sullivan the day off. If that happens, then quarterback Jared Goff might be lacking protection and running back Todd Gurley could be hard-pressed to find open spaces.
It’s a game of roster dominoes this week for the Rams.
“If you do go with a Whitworth and a Sullivan (sitting out),” McVay said Tuesday, “then how does that affect a Jared and a Todd, but those things are all definitely connected and those will be things that we are going to continue to discuss as the week progresses.”
“Progress” certainly is the word to describe the 2017 Rams. They’ve just won their first division title since 2003 — when McVay still was in high school and Gurley was 9 years old.
Gurley (NFL-best 1,305 rushing yards, 19 TDs), after a frustrating 2016 season, is in the 2017 NFL MVP discussion and was named to the Pro Bowl.
In the Rams’ 27-23 win over the Titans last week, Gurley rushed for 118 yards and had 153 receiving yards with two touchdown catches. He became only the third player in NFL history to accumulate 100-plus rushing yards and 150-plus receiving yards in the same game.
Goff endured a rugged rookie season in 2016, but has flourished this season. He has thrown for 3,844 yards and 28 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. His quarterback rating is 100.5.
His San Francisco counterpart, Garoppolo, has been equally stellar. During the 49ers’ 4-0 run since he took over as the starting quarterback, Garoppolo has thrown for 1,268 yards and five touchdowns, and has completed 69 percent of his passes.
There is even talk of San Francisco negotiating a multi-year contract extension with Garoppolo, whom the 49ers got in a late-October trade with the New England Patriots. It’s looking like the 49ers made an excellent swap when they traded a 2018 second-round draft pick for Garoppolo, who turned 26 just last month.
Garoppolo is 6-0 as a starter, including two starts for the Patriots last season when Tom Brady was suspended.
Brady praised his former backup.
“I am really happy for Jimmy and he’s worked really hard,” Brady said. “It shows up when he goes out there and plays really well.”
Maybe Garoppolo brought more than just his playing ability to San Francisco, which has won four in a row for the first time since 2013. Perhaps he has infused his former team’s winning culture into his current team.
“Since Jimmy G. got here, things have been a lot different,” 49ers running back Carlos Hyde said. “Things have been feeling really good around here. It’s been a good vibe. That energy in the locker room right now is really good. Guys are teeing off that and ready to play.”
San Francisco linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert could be ready to play in the 49ers’ season finale Sunday, according to first-year coach Kyle Shanahan. Foster has endured a shoulder stinger while Colbert has a shoulder sprain.
Who will play for the Rams on Sunday is an interesting puzzle for McVay. He does know that his players don’t go stale after some time off. After their bye week this season, the Rams hammered the New York Giants 51-17.
“I think we’ve got the right types of guys that can handle that the right way,” McVay said, “and understand how we need to practice and what we need to do in the meantime if it is a situation where they’re not going to play this coming week. But it is something that you do think about.”