8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cardinals -2.5, Over/Under: 51.5
Week Fourteen comes to a crescendo as the NFC West hangs in the balance with the division-leading Arizona Cardinals looking to maintain their hold on the no. one seed and complete the season sweep of the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Make no mistake, folks, for tonight’s affair in the desert is a must-win for the Rams (8-4, 2nd in NFC West), who have A LOT riding on its outcome. On one hand, a victory tonight will bring them closer towards catching the Cardinals, whom they trail by two full games within the division, while on the other, a loss would effectively end any chances they have of winning the NFC West. That’s because when these teams met earlier in the campaign, Los Angeles was utterly dominated in a 37-20 blowout at SoFi Stadium that left many in the City of Angels wondering what the hell just hit them. After retaking the lead late in the first quarter, the hosts would go on to be blindsided by the visiting Cards, who would outscore them 30-10 the rest of the way. Though both teams amassed over 400 yards of total offense, Arizona possessed the football for a commanding 35:10 on the strength of 216 rushing yards on forty carries and converting 8-of-13 third downs, while forcing a pair of crucial takeaways to turn the tide squarely in their favor. Indeed, this matchup was a shock to the system for a team that fielded the National Football League’s top defense a year ago in terms of both points (18.5) and total yards (282.0) allowed; (Defensive Coordinator) Raheem Morris’ troops were torched for twenty-seven points between the second and third quarters, with the visitors scoring on seven of eight drives following their opening possession, including three consecutive touchdown drives. However, (Head Coach) Sean McVay’s charges would rebound to win four straight games following that loss, though have fallen into a recent malaise over the past month in which they’ve won just once in four outings. So, what in the name of Eric Dickerson is going on in LA, you ask? Well, the biggest issue that has plagued this team of late is an utter lack of balance, with the offense becoming overly pass-heavy during this stretch. After four years of McVay trying to maximize the talents of (former Quarterback) Jared Goff, he and (General Manager) Les Snead sent the former no. one overall pick packing to the Detroit Lions in exchange for another (yet much older) top pick, Matthew Stafford (66.7%, 3,611 YDS, 7.62 NY/A, 30 TD, 9 INT, 65.8 QBR), who for all intents and purposes has been a significant upgrade at the game’s most important position. At 33 years old, Stafford has proven to have plenty left in the tank after toiling away for a dozen years in the Motor City, with his arm strength, accuracy, and experience bringing new dimensions to an offense that was routinely limited by his predecessor’s shortcomings. Revitalized in Los Angeles, Stafford has already thrown thirty touchdowns opposed to nine interceptions, parlaying to the highest scoring percentage of his career (6.8%). However, it appears that in his excitement to utilize this new weapon, McVay has eschewed balance with the ground game mustering just 85.5 rushing yards on only 19.5 attempts over the last four contests, including a miserable 71.3 yards on 17.0 attempts in the three losses. As a result, Stafford has thrown the football an average of 41.8 times which has opened up the potential for error resulting in seven turnovers, six attributed to the veteran Quarterback. To put that into perspective, half of the Rams’ fourteen turnovers (9th Overall) along with six of Stafford’s ten giveaways have come in these three defeats alone. Fortunately, they were granted the opportunity to reset themselves last weekend in a visit from the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, whom they manhandled in a 37-7 drubbing. Though they started rather slowly in kicking field goals on half of their six drives of the first half, the hosts would erupt in the second with three consecutive touchdown drives of eighty-five, sixty-two, and fifty-five yards, with the latter two consisting of ten plays apiece. First, Stafford would lead them eighty-five yards in just four plays, connecting with (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Cooper Kupp (100 REC, 1,366 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 11 TD) on receptions of forty-three and twenty-nine yards, the latter going for a touchdown, before concluding each of the next two possessions with passing scores to Van Jefferson (39 REC, 621 YDS, 15.9 Y/R, 5 TD) and the newly acquired Odell Beckham Jr. (9 REC, 127 YDS, 14.1 Y/R, 2 TD). With that said, the story last Sunday was the run game, which featured far more prominently than in recent weeks with a solid 128 yards on twenty-seven carries, led by (veteran Tailback) Sony Michel (103 CAR, 426 YDS, 4.1 Y/A, 2 TD) who racked up 121 yards and a touchdown on twenty-four attempts. Simply put, this is the game plan that McVay & Co need to utilize moving forward, for while there is certainly a plethora of weapons to be found on this side of the football, the 35-year-old mastermind cannot lose sight of keeping things balanced. Los Angeles’ leading rusher, Darrell Henderson (142 CAR, 648 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 5 TD) has missed some time with injuries and is currently on the COVID/Reserve List, which has factored into the greater shift towards the pass, the addition of Beckham and its effect on the attack can’t be overstated either. LA acquired the former Pro-Bowler a month ago after he cleared waivers following his release from the Cleveland Browns, with his arrival occurring simultaneously with the loss of (veteran Receiver) Robert Woods (45 REC, 556 YDS, 12.4 Y/R, 4 TD), who tore his ACL in practice that same week. Utilized a lot on sweeps and reverses, Woods’ production acted in many ways as an extension of the run game, stretching defenses horizontally in the process. Beckham on the other hand, is a very different player, and quite frankly is still trying to learn where he fits into McVay’s scheme; after reeling in two receptions on just three targets for eighteen yards in his debut, the 29-year-old registered a season-high eighty-one yards on five catches against the Packers, with touchdowns in each of the last two outings. Coupled with Kupp, who currently leads the NFL in receptions (100) receiving yards (1,366), and receiving touchdowns (11), Beckham should provide the Rams with one of the most threatening one-two punches in the passing game. That aforementioned loss to the Cardinals was their first under McVay in nine meetings, and if they manage to even the score with their division rival, the rest of the schedule remains perilous to say the least; Los Angeles faces return legs at SoFi against both the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, bookending trips to the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens, with those teams sporting a combined win percentage of .489.
Meanwhile, tonight’s primetime affair is also a significant one for the Cardinals (10-2, 1st n NFC West), who look to maintain their grip on both the division and NFC at large, though one misstep could see them tumble down the hierarchy within the conference. As we detailed earlier, Arizona currently holds a two-game lead over their opponent tonight within the NFC West, with a victory all but assuring them of their first division title since 2015. However, this team has their eyes on bigger things as they look to fend off the pursuit of the NFC’s elite, particularly the Packers and Buccaneers, whom they are currently one game ahead of in the standings. In fact, their first loss of the campaign came against Green Bay, a thrilling 24-21 battle that also happened to be their only other game on primetime. That fateful contest also saw (explosive Quarterback) Kyler Murray (72.7%, 2,399 YDS, 7.72 NY/A, 19 TD, 7 INT, 65.6 QBR) succumb to a high ankle sprain that would keep him out of action for the following four weeks before the third-year sensation made his return in last weekend’s 33-22 victory over the Chicago Bears. Needless to say, the Cardinals were happy to have their man back on the gridiron, as they started quickly in the Windy City with three consecutive touchdown drives to open things. After (Safety) Jalen Thompson (85 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 INT, 5 PD) picked off (Bears Quarterback) Andy Dalton at the host’s own 29-yard line, Murray would find (All-Pro Receiver) DeAndre Hopkins (37 REC, 518 YDS, 14.0 Y/R, 8 TD), who also returned from a lengthy injury absence, for a 20-yard score to get on the board. On the ensuring Chicago possession, (Pro-Bowl Safety) Budda Baker (69 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FR, 3 INT, 4 PD) would pick Dalton once more, returning the football seventy-seven yards, setting up Murray for a 9-yard touchdown run. Though the Bears would eventually get on the board on their next drive, the visitors would go seventy-four yards in seven plays, as Murray tossed his second score of the afternoon with a 23-yard touchdown to (Tailback) James Conner (166 CAR, 630 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 12 TD). In the end it was a successful return for the 24-year-old, who completed 11-of-15 passes for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns along with another fifty-nine rushing yards and two scores on ten carries. Hopkins hauled in two catches for thirty-two yards and that aforementioned touchdown in his first game back following a strained hamstring, while Conner totaled 111 yards from scrimmage and a score. (Head Coach) Kliff Kingsbury’s troops only possessed the football for 25:15 in large part because they forced four turnovers on the day, all of which were interceptions of Dalton that granted them the football on a short field. (Cornerback) Byron Murphy (45 TKL, 1 QBH, 0.5 SK, 1 FF, 4 INT, 10 PD, 1 TD) and (Defensive Lineman) Zach Allen (30 TKL, 3 TFL, 5 QBH, 2.0 SK, 2 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD) also got their hands on the football, with the former flourishing in his third season with the team. As the Cardinals return to health it will be interesting to see if they can become as prolific as they were prior to Murray and Hopkins going down; Arizona averaged 32.1 points on a whopping 402.2 total yards during their perfect run to begin the campaign. Murray, who has improved greatly as a passer in his third season in the league, completed 73.5% of his attempts for an average of 286.0 yards on a healthy 8.3 net yards per attempt with seventeen touchdowns opposed to five interceptions during that stretch, while rushing for another 126 yards and three scores. And that is where this guy is such a threat, folks, for the former no. one pick is a Bonafide playmaker with his legs; standing at just 5′-10′, Murray oftentimes gets lost behind his Offensive Line, with defenders unable to track him until it’s too late, while he shiftiness and speed is comparable to a Pro-Bowl Tailback. Furthermore, Kingsbury’s offense is predicated on the threat he poses out of the backfield; during that initial seven-game winning streak, Arizona churned out 136.6 yards on the ground in comparison to just 99.3 yards in the four games that followed before getting back on track at Chicago. Similar to the effect that Lamar Jackson has on the Ravens’ offense, Murray’s presence alone takes this unit to another level altogether. Just ask the Rams how they feel about this guy; when they met back in that aforementioned affair in early October, he torched them for 307 total yards, including 268 through the air with two touchdowns on 24-of-32 passing, as the Cards hung 465 total yards on their division rival. Furthermore, Los Angeles was concerned with Murray beating them with his legs, they failed to account for the tandem of (young Tailback) Chase Edmonds (106 TCH, 641 YDS, 6.0 Y/T, 1 TD) and Conner, who combined for 170 yards and two scores on thirty attempts. Of course, the offense has only been one part of the equation in the desert, for the Cardinals have been nearly as good on the defensive side of the football in 2021, allowing just 18.7 points per game (4th Overall) on 318.8 total yards (5th Overall), including 205.1 yards against the pass (4th Overall) on 5.5 net yards per attempt (4th Overall). (Defensive Coordinator) Vance Joseph has done a stellar job with a largely young unit that lost (longtime Cornerback) Patrick Peterson and (leading sack man) Hassan Reddick in free agency, and eventually (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) J.J. Watt (16 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD) just seven games after signing him in the offseason. However, they’ve forced a whopping twenty-three turnovers (5th Overall), which has led to a very healthy plus-12 differential, with thirteen different players logging a takeaway. The aforementioned duo of Baker and Murphy have accounted for eight turnovers, while (versatile Sophomore Linebacker) Isaiah Simmons (78 TKL, 3 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 INT, 5 PD) has looked far more comfortable in his second season in the NFL. (Veteran Edge-Rusher) Chandler Jones (24 TKL, 8 TFL, 22 QBH, 8.5 SK, 1 FR, 3 PD, 1 TD) has been largely healthy after a truncated 2020, while (Outside Linebacker) Markus Golden (35 TKL, 8 TFL, 15 QBH, 10.0 SK, 4 FF, 2 FR, 1 PD) has filled the void left behind by Reddick with ten sacks and fifteen Quarterback hits. Tonight’s affair marks just the second of the Monday night variety for the Cardinals over the last four years, and their seventh over the last decade, winning all but two of them, including their only one under Kingsbury in a trip back to his home state at the Dallas Cowboys, a 38-10 blowout victory.