The San Francisco 49ers had hoped to have already clinched the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs entering the final weekend of the regular season, but things didn't go their way.
However, that coveted first-round bye doesn't seem to be in jeopardy with their next game coming against the St. Louis Rams.
San Francisco visits NFC-worst St. Louis on Sunday looking to sweep the season series for the third time in four years.
The 49ers (12-3) clinched the NFC West title and their first playoff berth since 2002 with a 26-0 win over the Rams (2-13) on Dec. 4. They're assured of hosting at least one postseason game but surely would like an extra week off before that happens.
All they have to do to claim that first-round bye is beat a St. Louis team which has lost six straight by a 150-53 score. Even if it loses, San Francisco could still get the bye if New Orleans - also 12-3 - loses to Carolina because the Niners own the tiebreaker over the Saints.
New Orleans defeating Atlanta on Monday night prevented the 49ers from already wrapping up the No. 2 seed and potentially allowing them to rest their starters this weekend.
"We'll go down to St. Louis and try to get a win and lock up that second seed and get that bye week," leading rusher Frank Gore said. "As a team, that will help us, especially playing at home. Our first (playoff) game, that's big for us. I'm excited."
Gore also should be excited to face the league's worst run defense. St. Louis gives up 154.5 rushing yards per game.
San Francisco is No. 1 in that category (75.1) and has allowed the fewest points in the league (202). St. Louis has a league-low 166 points, the only team to have scored fewer than 200.
The 49ers held the Rams to 157 total yards in December's victory and held leading rusher Steven Jackson to 19 on 10 carries. It was the second time in the last five meetings that St. Louis couldn't score on the 49ers.
San Francisco put together another impressive defensive performance in a 19-17 victory over Seattle last Saturday.
Pro Bowl kicker David Akers made four field goals to give him an NFL-record 42 this season, and the only points the Seahawks scored after halftime came following a blocked punt. Seattle totaled just 72 yards in the second half.
"Our guys continually do the little things and they stack on each other and they build on each other and, lo and behold, you win games in high-pressure situations," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Find ways to do enough things right to win games. And get better. Those things lead to wins and enough of those wins lead to championships."
San Francisco continues to rely on its defense with the offense depleted because of injuries to Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle), Kyle Williams (concussion) and Delanie Walker (jaw) as well as the team's decision to release receiver Braylon Edwards.
That doesn't figure to be an issue against St. Louis, though.
While the 49ers prepare for the playoffs, the Rams are looking to next season, with a chance to have the No. 1 pick in the draft if they lose and Indianapolis wins this weekend.
St. Louis is coming off its second shutout loss in four games, 27-0 to Pittsburgh last Saturday, as Kellen Clemens started for the injured Sam Bradford and completed 9 of 24 passes for 91 yards.
It's been a miserable season for the Rams, who have scored an NFL-low 15 touchdowns and rank last in third-down efficiency.
While Bradford wants to play Sunday, the Rams may choose to be cautious.
"We know we're dealing with a competitive guy and all I can say is we'll take it day by day and we'll be smart with it," coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
With one year remaining on his contract, Spagnuolo could be coaching his final game. The Rams are 10-37 in his three seasons.
Spagnuolo wouldn't comment on speculation about his future, and he certainly isn't thinking about the idea that a loss actually may benefit the Rams because it could give them the top overall draft pick.
"There is something to winning the last game in my opinion, whether you're moving on to the playoffs or not," Spagnuolo said. "I think it carries you.
"One of the most rewarding things in this business is the locker room at the end of a win."
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