Why Jim Harbaugh Should Rest San Francisco 49ers' Starters in Week 17

Scott DaileyContributor IDecember 23, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 04:  Kendall Hunter #32 of the San Francisco 49ers attempts to break the tackle of Craig Dahl #43 of the St Louis Rams at Candlestick Park on December 4, 2011 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As I write this on Friday, I’m indulging in something I can guarantee the 49ers are not doing—looking past the Seattle Seahawks.

Because they’re the better team, the Niners will beat the Seahawks in Seattle on Saturday afternoon.  And I’m now contemplating what San Francisco should do against its final opponent, the St. Louis Lambs—uh, Rams—the following Sunday.

My recommendation:  Rest, baby, rest.

The Rams are pitiable.  A season’s worth of key injuries has reduced a preseason playoff favorite to a 2-12 team held together by pride, professionalism and a whole lot of tape. 

The 49ers shut them down, literally, in their first meeting this year.  The Rams couldn’t get anything going, and the Niners coasted to a 26-0 win in Week 13.

There’s no reason to expect anything different next Sunday.  At this point, the best the Rams can hope for is another win by the Indianapolis Colts, who are suddenly just a little too good for their own interest. 

That’s not saying the Rams will put it in the tank for a shot at Stanford Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

But it is saying that, alas, the Rams simply don’t offer much in the way of competition.  And that gives the 49ers an opportunity to rest several important starters for the playoffs.

Start with linebacker Patrick Willis and his pulled hamstring.  He missed practice on Wednesday, had limited participation yesterday and today, and is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game.  Whether or not he plays against the Seahawks, he could probably benefit from just soaking up the atmosphere at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis next Sunday.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 04:  Larry Grant #54 of the San Francisco 49ers loses his helmet while tackling Steven Jackson #39 of the St Louis Rams at Candlestick Park on December 4, 2011 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won the game 26-0. (Photo
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In Willis’ absence, second-stringer Larry Grant has been doing an outstanding job.  As he has the past couple of weeks, he can ably hold down Willis’ spot against the Rams.

It’s a similar story with fullback Bruce Miller (knee).  He’s also seen limited action in practice this week.  After the Seattle game—for which he, too, is officially questionable—he could profit from some relaxation on the bench.

Ditto Frank Gore.  He’s been playing through knee and ankle pain for a good part of the season.  Time to see what talented rookie backup Kendall Hunter can do in an extended performance.

And what of quarterback Alex Smith?  He succeeded twice last week in guiding the 49ers across the red zone to the Holy Grail.  If he looks decent against Seattle, let’s watch backup Colin Kaepernick for at least a quarter against the Rams.

In case you’re wondering about the implications for the first-round playoff bye, I performed a public service and dug into the NFL’s tie-breaking procedures.  It was about as easy as deciphering canon law, but things look good for the Niners if they finish the season tied with the New Orleans Saints.

Neither team played each other this season, so the first tie-breaker that applies is win-loss percentage within the conference.  There, the 49ers hold the advantage at 8-2 versus the Saints’ 7-3. 

Next is record against common opponents.  The 49ers and Saints this year have played four teams in common—the Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions and New York Giants.  For some inexplicable reason, the Saints lost to both the Rams and Bucs, two teams the 49ers throttled.  The Saints are 3-2 against the four teams (including two games with Tampa Bay), and the 49ers are 4-0.

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 27: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers drops back to pass against the Houston Texans during an NFL pre-season football game at Candlestick Park August 27, 2011 in San Francisco, California. The Texans won the game 30-7.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

If both teams win out, the 49ers will hold the advantage.  That said, winning out isn’t a lock for either club.

Both San Francisco and New Orleans face solid, playoff-contending teams this weekend.  After the Niners take on 7-7 Seattle on Saturday, the Saints play the 9-5 Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. 

The Falcons can make the playoffs by winning out, so you can bet they’ll be motivated.  Chris Berman of ESPN on Thursday night predicted at 30-20 win for the Saints, but I’m not so sure.  The Falcons are a good team, and will be hungry for a little gumbo.

Should both Atlanta and the 49ers prevail this weekend, the No. 2 playoff spot will belong to San Francisco, and the Niners can do whatever they want in St. Louis.  If the Saints win, however, the 49ers will have to make a credible effort against the Rams. 

But given the degree of literal pain St. Louis is enduring, that should still leave plenty of room for the 49ers’ capable subs to spell the starters.  At this point, while avoiding unnecessary losses, the best thing the 49ers can do is to have everyone feeling fresh for the playoffs.