4:05 PM EST, FOX – Line: Rams -3, Over/Under: 48.5
Entering December, the race within the NFC West is heating up as the Arizona Cardinals play host to the Los Angeles Rams in the first of two meetings in less than a month, this one from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. If the Playoffs were to indeed kick off today, then the Rams (7-4, 2nd in NFC West) would no doubt be clapping their collective hands, for even though they trail the Seahawks by a single game within the division, their current seeding (5th) would ensure a matchup with whomever comes out of the miserably underachieving East, where (barring a miracle) none of their residents are likely to claim a winning record. This of course, is significant for a number of reasons, none more so than how Los Angeles relentlessly padded their record earlier in the season against their number; four of their first five outings of 2020 came against the NFC East, winning the quartet of contests by a combined score of 104-55, and outgaining them by an average margin of 98.5 yards per game. So needless to say, Sean McVay & Co must feel confident in their ability to travel cross country and best any of those particular opponents, especially when you consider that there has been (and will continue to be) no such thing as homefield advantage without the presence of a howling fan base. So with that in mind, how do these Rams stack up for the Postseason, you ask?
All things considered, this is a team that has flown curiously under the radar this season for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, after advancing to Super Bowl LIII two years ago, they underachieved and missed the Playoffs altogether in 2019, which led to a mass exodus of talent in the City of Angels. Los Angeles swung for the fences last season, adding a number of veteran talent in an attempt to maximize their Super Bowl window, but after slumping to a 9-7 finish they completely adjusted their approach to team-building and cut ties with a wealth of vets, releasing the likes of 2018 Offensive Player of the Year, Todd Gurley, trading away (Receiver) Brandin Cooks, allowing (Edge-Rusher) Dante Fowler and (Linebacker) Clay Matthews to leave in Free Agency, while saying goodbye to (Cornerback) Aqib Talib, (Safety) Eric Weddle, and even (Defensive Coordinator) Wade Phillips who all chose to walk away in retirement. In turn, McVay and (General Manager) Les Snead started handing out lucrative contract extensions to those deemed as foundational pillars moving forward, with (Receivers) Robert Woods (61 REC, 679 YDS, 11.1 Y/R, 5 TD) and Cooper Kupp (66 REC, 763 YDS, 11.6 Y/R, 2 TD), alongside All-Pro Cornerback, Jalen Ramsey (31 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 INT, 3 PD) inking major deals to remain with the club for the foreseeable future. Deftly managing the Salary Cap is an understated part of maintaining long-term success in the National Football League, and the Rams are in the thick of that process; after those aforementioned extensions, they will be allocating over 62% of their cap to five players, including Franchise Quarterback, Jared Goff (67.2%, 3,021 YDS, 6.96 NY/A, 16 TD, 10 INT, 57.5 QBR), and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald (31 TKL, 8 TFL, 21 QBH, 10.0 SK, 4 FF, 1 FR, 1 PD). Many thought that with so much turnover on their roster that Los Angeles would need to take another year to reconfigure themselves, but that simply hasn’t been the case as they’ve found a way to balance remaining successful in the present while building for the future, which quite frankly is one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL. The other reason that the national consciousness has looked past them is due to the division that they play in, with the NFC West standing as easily the most competitive in the league; with a combined record of 26-18 (.591), only the 49ers are currently below .500, and though they’ve been absolutely decimated due to injuries they’ve still managed to remain in the hunt for a Wild Card. Furthermore, as the Rams know all too well, even the last-placed team in their division can prove quite an obstacle (which we’ll get into shortly). With that said, they’ve proven to be solid on both sides of the football, with the Offense benefitting from a more consistent Offensive Line, leading to a much-improved rushing attack (124.6 Y/G, 9th Overall) headlined by a platoon in the wake of Gurley’s departure, and a Defense that under the guidance of new Defensive Coordinator, Brandon Staley, has been one of the stingiest in the league, relegating opponents 19.5 points per game (4th Overall) on 297.0 total yards (2nd Overall). They’ve also shown that they can do much more than simply beat up on weaker competition, exhibiting the ability to go toe-to-toe with the NFC’s heavyweights, besting the Seattle Seahawks (23-16) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (27-24) in successive weeks, limiting the likes of Russell Wilson and Tom Brady to a combined 48-of-85 passing (56.5%), 429 yards (4.7 NY/A), and two touchdowns, while intercepting them four times and sacking them on seven occasions. Now they’ll be looking to slow down the Cardinals and their prolific attack, which is something that they had little trouble with a year ago; the Rams won both meetings in 2019, the first being a dominant 34-7 showing in the desert, where they outgained the hosts 549-198 in total yards, and the second being a much closer 31-24 affair, ultimately decided by FIVE takeaways by Los Angeles.
When we last saw the Rams, they were once again defeated by the injury-riddled San Francisco 49ers, who managed to beat them for the second time in six weeks, 23-20. While this particular meeting wasn’t nearly as one-sided as their previous affair back on October 18th, a 24-16 outcome that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would lead you to believe, it was still a disappointing performance from a side that entered the weekend occupying first place in the NFC West. Los Angeles struck first with a 48-yard field goal courtesy of Matt Gay which was set up by a Jordan Fuller interception, but the visitors quickly secured momentum traveling seventy-five yards in just five plays, scoring on an eight-yard Raheem Mostert rush, and then just four plays later returned an interception of the aforementioned Goff twenty-seven yards to take a 14-3 an early advantage. The combatants would trade field goals before the hosts would strike back scoring takeaway of their own, as Donald forced a fumble of Mostert, which Troy Hill returned twenty yards to the house to cut the deficit 17-13. On the ensuing drive, (Rookie Tailback) Cam Akers (59 CAR, 285 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 1 TD) took three carries sixty-eight yards into the end zone to retake the lead, but a pair of Robbie Gould field goals would see the Niners recapture the lead for good. In the end, both teams struggled mightily to take care of the football, committing a combined SEVEN turnovers, with Los Angeles giving away the pigskin four times, which played a major role in the disparity in time of possession (34:03-25:57). Goff had a rough day at the office, completing 19-of-31 passes for just 198 yards and two interceptions, while suffering a pair of sacks and a lost fumble, with Woods serving as the lone bright spot on Offense, reeling in seven receptions on a dozen targets for eighty yards. Defensively, though Donald was once again a force to be reckoned with logging five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, the Rams were bested in the trenches where San Francisco rushed for 115 yards on thirty-three carries, nearly matching their total of 122 in their previous meeting.
Meanwhile, today’s matchup is critical for the Cardinals (6-5, NFC West) push towards the Playoffs, as they look to stop the bleeding and get back into the race for the NFC West. It was just six weeks ago that Arizona stunned the previously unbeaten Seahawks, 37-34 in Overtime, running their record to a surprising 5-2, earning them a share of the lead within the division as they headed into their Bye Week. However, perhaps they became a bit too enamored with their own headlines, for since returning from that idle week they’ve managed to win just one of their last four outings, with that lone victory coming on the strength of a ridiculous Hail Mary from Kyler Murray (68.2%, 2,814 YDS, 6.73 NY/A, 19 TD, 9 INT, 72.9 QBR) to DeAndre Hopkins (77 REC, 967 YDS, 12.6 Y/R, 4 TD). Credit to Kliff Kingsbury’s charges, for they’ve found themselves in every game during this period of time, but they’ve unfortunately developed a habit of coming up short in close games; each of their last four contests have been decided by one possession with three of them by a difference of three points or fewer. As a result, they’ve slumped to third in the ultra-competitive NFC West, and find themselves on the fringes of the Playoffs; the Cards own a tenuous grip on the final Wild Card in the NFC, sitting just one game ahead of three other teams in the standings, including the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, and the aforementioned 49ers. So what gives? Are these birds legitimate Postseason contenders, or are they simply just another young team learning how to close games?
Well, this may sound like cheating, but the answer to that question is both, for the Cardinals have absolutely shown the quality on a number of occasions this season, but remain hindered by their overall inexperience, which has been exploited in close games. With that said, the franchise has certainly been vindicated in their decision to abandon their previous regime after just one unsuccessful season, with the additions of Murray and Kingsbury bearing fruit well ahead of schedule. Remember, back in 2018 Arizona hit the reset button hiring Sam Wilkes to be their new Head Coach and selecting Josh Rosen (Tenth Overall) to spearhead a new era of football in the desert, only to usher both out the door following a massively disappointing 3-13 finish. (Owner) Michael Bidwell and (General Manager) Steve Keim were heavily criticized for their decision and lack of patience, with the naysayers growing even louder following the shocking hiring of Kingsbury and the selection of Murray No. One Overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Kingsbury, a longtime advocate of the air-raid attack, washed out at his Alma Mata, Texas Tech, where he went just 35-40 over six years in Lubbock, Texas. The 41-year old wasn’t eve on the radar of college teams, eventually accepting the Offensive Coordinator gig at USC before his received the offer from Bidwell and Keim to take over the Cards. Murray, the 2018 Heisman winner, was deemed too-small by most NFL scouts, with the option of venturing into Major League Baseball further complicating his draft stock. Well, for a coach who’s system was said to be incompatible with the NFL and a Quarterback chided for being too short at the controls, Arizona has done just fine for themselves. In their second season together, this duo has piloted an explosive Offense that has averaged 27.6 points per game (8th Overall) on a prolific 411.7 total yards (2nd Overall), including 255.8 yards through the air (15th Overall) on 6.7 net yards per attempt (14th Overall), and another 155.9 yards on the ground (4th Overall) on a league-best 5.0 yards per carry (1st Overall), all the while converting on 43.8% of their third downs (10th Overall) and punching it on 73.7% of their attempts in the red zone (4th Overall). For his part, Murray has quieted the critics in proving that a passer standing just 5-10 can consistently play at a high level in today’s NFL; he’s progressed rapidly throwing the football, improving his completion percentage (68.2%), net yards per attempt (6.73), touchdown percentage (4.9%), and QBR (72.9), with better protection being the greatest proponent for his success, as the 23-yaer old has suffered just eighteen sacks thus far (4.4%), which is a steep decline from league-high FORTY-EIGHT (8.1%) he took as a Rookie. Of course, what really makes Murray special is his ability to make plays with his legs, leading all Quarterbacks in rushing yards (650) and touchdowns (10), while pacing the league as a whole in yards per carry (6.7). In this case, his small stature has been a serious advantage, for opposing defenders oftentimes lose track of him behind the Offensive Line, and his elusiveness is on par with the most elusive Tailbacks in the NFL. Finally, we’d be remiss to talk about the aforementioned Hopkins, who has played no small part in the improvement of his Quarterback and the Offense as a whole. The three-time All-Pro was acquired in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory, bringing one of the most consistent pass-catchers in the league to the desert, where he has unsurprisingly hit it off with Murray, hauling in seventy-seven receptions for 967 yards and four touchdowns, all the while posting an outrageous catch percentage of 74.8%, the highest mark of his stellar career. If you want to expedite the development of your young Franchise Quarterback, there are few methods better than gifting him a perennial Pro-Bowl Receiver, which is just another feather in cap of Bidwell and Keim. We’ll see if this upgrade is enough to get Murray over the hump against the Rams, who he struggled mightily against as a Rookie, completing just 59.2% of his passes for 488 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, while rushing for only twenty-eight yards on six carries and another score, though was sacked SEVEN times for a loss of forty-five yards and two lost fumbles.
When we last saw the Cardinals, they slumped to their third defeat in four outings as they found themselves on the wrong end of a narrow 20-17 loss at the New England Patriots. Kingsbury’s charges raced out to a 10-0 lead in the First Quarter, but struggled to find much of a rhythm the rest of the way, with each of their next five drives netting zero points. During that period, the Patriots turned the tables, scoring seventeen unanswered points to take a 17-10 advantage late in the third period. The visitors would even things up with what was clearly their best possession of the evening, producing a marathon sixteen-play, 80-yard drive that took 7:19 minutes off the clock, culminating with a one-yard touchdown run from Kenyan Drake (168 CAR, 719 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 7 TD). However, their struggles in close games would come to a head again; despite picking off Cam Newton on the ensuing drive, Zane Gonzalez would miss the go-ahead, 45-yard field goal, granting possession back to the home side, who worked their way downfield from their own 35-yard line, with Newton scrambling thirteen yards for a crucial first down on 3rd & 13. Unfortunately for Arizona, another fifteen yards was tacked onto the play following a controversial unnecessary roughness penalty on Rookie Linebacker, Isaiah Simmons (36 TKL, 4 TFL, 3 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 INT, 2 PD), who knocked Newton out of bounds on that previous play. Two plays later and New England drilled the game-winning 50-yard field goal as time expired. In the end, the Cardinals dominated the game in every category but the one that matters, owning clear advantages in total yards (298-179), rushing yards (138-110), first downs (23-16), and time of possession (34:08-25:52), but simply couldn’t finish off the Pats. Murray went 23-of-34 for 170 yards and an interception, while rushing for just thirty-one yards on five carries, and was otherwise contained by Bill Belichick’s Defense, as was Hopkins who could manage only fifty-five yards on five catches. And speaking of containment, that’s precisely what Arizona’s Defense did to Newton, relegating the former MVP to a miserable eighty-four yards on 9-of-14 passing, picking him off twice and sacking him three times. Though he was flagged on that crucial play, Simmons continued his uptick in play, with the Eighth Overall Pick in the 2020 NFL Draft showcasing his range and athleticism, totaling six tackles, one for loss, and a sack a week after posting a career-high ten stops at Seattle.