Faced with the reality of a short week and the threat of starting 1-3, the San Francisco 49ers (1-2) and St. Louis Rams (1-2) will square off on Thursday night in Missouri.
The NFC West matchup had the potential to feature two surging NFC West teams when the season began, but instead both Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher are now feeling the pressure of two losses in their first three games of the 2013 campaign.
Former NFL star Kurt Warner questioned the division's stability through three weeks on Twitter:
The Dallas Cowboys pummeled St. Louis in Week 3; Sam Bradford and the offense managed just 232 total yards against the Cowboys in the 31-7 rout. The running game has struggled so far, with the Rams currently 29th in the NFL in rushing yards with 57.0 per game.
While the Rams have had their struggles, the team with more to prove in this one will be San Francisco. The defending NFC champions looked invincible in Week 1 against Green Bay but followed that effort up with consecutive losses for the first time in the Harbaugh era.
With more questions than answers for both teams heading into Week 4, we'll prepare you for an important early-season divisional matchup below.
When: Thursday, Sept. 26, at 8:25 p.m. ET
Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis, Mo.
Watch: NFL Network
Live Stream: NFL.com
Betting Line: San Francisco (-3), Over/Under (42); odds via Vegas Insider
San Francisco Injuries (via ESPN.com)
Out: LB Aldon Smith (personal)
St. Louis Injuries (via ESPN.com)
Out: DE William Hayes (knee), T Rodger Saffold (knee)
It's hard to make the playoffs in the NFL when you start 1-3.
One of these two teams will be in that position on Friday morning, a fact that should make the atmosphere in St. Louis electric.
Factor in the division rivalry, the lack of rest that comes with playing on Thursday after a Sunday game and the Rams being unbeaten against the 49ers in the Fisher era, and this battle might come down to who wants it more.
The NFC is wide open, and this might be the year that a slow start doesn't spell doom. However, with Seattle in firm control of the division and other teams putting more pieces together each week, chances to rise above are few and far between the rest of the way.
No one projected San Francisco, a preseason Super Bowl contender, to lose three games in four weeks to start the season. Things change quickly in the NFL, and the loser of this game will feel the optimism start to slip away as the calendar pages turn.
On a short week, coaches often look to their strengths on offense to carry the load.
For St. Louis, it's been the passing game. Bradford is averaging over 280 yards per game through the air, but San Francisco's defense has been one of the league's best in allowing just a 56.6 percent completion rate and 199 yards a game.
Something's got to give.
On offense, the Niners have struggled to move the ball since their Week 1 output against the Packers. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has come back down to earth after his career day, throwing for just 277 yards with four interceptions (zero touchdowns) in the last two games, both losses.
Look for the 49ers to establish a running game early. St. Louis allowed Dallas to run for 193 yards in Week 3, and a quick way for San Francisco to turn things around on offense should be to exploit some of those same weaknesses the Cowboys exposed.
St. Louis offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's game plan will also likely include more ground work. The Indianapolis Colts rushed for 179 yards on the highly touted San Francisco defense over the weekend. Added to their season total, the Niners are now the fourth-worst team in the NFL (138 yards allowed per game) at stopping the run.
Rams running back Daryl Richardson hasn't gotten anything going so far this season and played just one snap against the Cowboys. But if healthy and active, he could be called upon in tandem with Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunningham to stabilize the rushing attack.
The injury situation is an important talking point for both teams, but San Francisco's potential absences could have a major impact on the final outcome.
Niners star Aldon Smith is out indefinitely while seeking alcohol abuse treatment, a decision that made shortly after San Francisco's loss to Indianapolis. Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter is one of many who questioned the decision to allow Smith to even play against the Colts:
Steve Busfield of The Guardian provides this quote from 49ers owner Jed York, who defended the team's decision to play Smith:
"Our opinion is if you're sitting someone down and paying them to sit down when they're going to seek treatment in the future, we didn't feel like that was an appropriate punishment. We're not trying to circumvent what the NFL will do. This is about making sure that Aldon has the opportunity to work on something, to get better, and he knows that he has our support and hopefully he has everybody's support in something that is going to be very difficult."
Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Nnamdi Asomugha are questionable for the contest.
It's a small sample size, but the Rams play division opponents well under Fisher. In seven games, Fisher has a 5-1-1 record against NFC West foes. As mentioned above, he's also unbeaten against Harbaugh's 49ers.
The talent in this one favors San Francisco, but the intangibles favor St. Louis. Playing at home and dealing with less internal strife, the Rams record a tight win as Kap and the Niners set themselves up behind the eight ball at 1-3.
St. Louis 22, San Francisco 20
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