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Fantasy Index Weekly

NFC Championship: Los Angeles Rams

Stafford decision-making key

The NFC's top 3 seeds are gone, giving the No. 4 Rams this game at home. But the matchup isn't great. Even setting aside San Francisco winning six straight in the series, the 49ers have one of the league's best defenses: 4th in yards allowed, and 9th in points. The Rams averaged exactly 3 TDs per game during the season, and that looks like their ceiling this week.

Matthew Stafford will need to better than he's been in the previous meetings, that's for certain. He threw picks on his first two series at San Francisco, one returned for a touchdown, sticking the Rams in a 14-0 hole they never recovered from. He threw 2 more in the home loss, including the overtime miscue that ended the game. Thirteen of his league-leading 17 interceptions came from Week 9 on (although he hasn't personally turned it over in either playoff game).

Other than the late picks, Stafford was fairly sharp for most of the home loss, completing 21 of 32, for just 238 yards but with 3 TDs. He was sacked 5 times, so a solid performance considering the pressure he was seeing. This is a pass-first offense (5th in passing and just 25th in rushing), so it's not like they're going to totally re-work things here to protect the football. San Francisco ranked 8th defending both the run and the pass, so it's a tough matchup either way. We're putting him down for 285 yards and 2-3 TDs, with just 2 more likely; how he plays (and takes care of the football) will probably determine if the Rams advance.

Cam Akers tore his Achilles just over six months ago, so the fact that he's averaged 21 carries and 2 receptions in the two playoff games is nothing short of stunning. Against the Cardinals he looked better than his 3.2 yards per attempt would suggest, plus he had a 40-yard reception, and a touchdown run overturned. But he managed just 2.0 yards per attempt at Tampa Bay, and his 2 lost fumbles were instrumental in the game even being close (and nearly a loss). Not that Akers will be punished (Sean McVay said afterward that he's confident Akers will "respond the right way"), but another miscue would probably affect his playing time, and it's possible Sony Michel will get a few more chance anyway. Michel got only 14 snaps and 3 touches last week. The Rams could also choose to activate Darrell Henderson for this game; he was designated to return last week. But at best he'd see a few change-of-pace snaps; Akers should be featured. (As of Friday, we're proceeding as if Henderson will remain on IR.)

The matchup is lousy, with San Francisco 8th in run defense. The 49ers did allow 17 rushing scores, but the Rams were a lot more likely to score on passes (41) than runs (just 10) during the season. That held up in the regular-season meetings, with all 4 TDs scored by the Rams on passes. LA's Henderson-Michel tandem ran for only 51 yards on 9 carries at San Francisco (with the team falling behind early), and Michel-Akers were even less effective in the home game (26 carries for just 46 yards). Akers is a little more likely to be featured than the backs in Kansas City, but Los Angeles will probably finish 4th in team rushing this week.

With Cooper Kupp, it looks like a question of whether he'll be great or merely very good. He averaged 8.5 catches for 115 yards, with 16 touchdowns, during the season, and has followed it up by averaging 7 grabs for 122 yards in the postseason, with a touchdown in each game. San Francisco didn't have any answers in the regular season (18 catches for 240 yards, with 1 TD). Odell Beckham has emerged as a significant No. 2. Two of his four best yardage totals as a Ram have come the last two weeks: 4 for 54 with a touchdown against Arizona, 6 for 69 at Tampa Bay. It's a one-two punch, and the only No. 2 who looks like a reasonable candidate to outperform Beckham this week is Tee Higgins.

Van Jefferson looks like an average No. 3 for the week -- behind Tyler Boyd, perhaps similar to Jauan Jennings. Beckham's emergence has eaten into his production. In the last three games he's totaled just 5 catches for 101 yards, and on only 7 targets. Jefferson had put up at least 54 yards seven times this season, but that looks beyond him right now. No touchdowns in his last six, either. Ben Skowronek has barely got on the field in the postseason, and no targets in either game.

Tyler Higbee looks about as likely to score as either of the top wideouts; maybe more likely. He scored just 5 touchdowns on the season, but his last three all came against this opponent; 2 TDs in Week 18. He's been involved, albeit without scoring, in the postseason (7 catches for 97 yards). No one would consider him a better player at his position than George Kittle, but in fantasy terms, Higbee looks like the best of the non-Kelce tight ends playing this week. Kendall Blanton caught a short touchdown at Tampa Bay, but that looks like a once-in-a-blue-moon type of occurrence. Blanton played only 8 snaps in that one, with one other reception; he didn't catch a pass in any of the previous five games.

Matt Gay had a big season, though his performance at Tampa Bay left a little to be desired. The game-winning field goal from 30 yards was closer to the upright than the Rams would have liked, and he was surprisingly short on a 47-yarder that would have all but iced the game. He averaged just 5 in the two San Francisco games (after averaging 8.5 on the season). San Francisco allowed only 21 field goals and under 6 kicking points per game this year. We're slotting him as one of the top 2 kickers, but not a lot of separation with these players.

More so than the AFC game, defenses could play a sizable role, with the Rams Defense a candidate to finish with strong numbers. It ranked 3rd in both sacks (50) and interceptions (19) during the season, and Jimmy Garoppolo has been a favorable matchup in some games. He threw costly interceptions in both playoff games, and was also intercepted twice by the Rams in the Week 18 game, while also taking 3 sacks in that one. He was sacked 4 times by Green Bay, and might be without franchise left tackle Trent Williams (ankle); Williams hasn't practiced thus far this week. Garoppolo is far from the only error-inclined quarterback playing this week (Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow have also made their share of mistakes), but the Rams are the most opportunistic of the Championship Game defenses in this regard.

NEXT: Championship Game Rankings.

--Andy Richardson

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