8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Rams -4, Over/Under: 49.5
Wild Card Weekend comes to its conclusion with a divisional battle between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams, who will be locking horns for the third time this season in a rubber match from SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Despite returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, there are plenty of concerns regarding the Cardinals (11-6, 2nd in NFC West), who for all intents and purposes have backed into the postseason following an impressive start. Arizona put together their strongest start in franchise history in winning their first seven games en route to holding possession of the NFC’s no. one seed at 10-2 before falling victim to a rash of injuries and the ensuing collapse. So, what in the name of Pat Tillman has happened in the desert, you ask? Well, as we just stated, injuries have played a MAJOR role in their regression, as many notable figures on both sides of the football have succumbed to various maladies. First and foremost, (third-year Quarterback) Kyler Murray (69.2%, 3,787 YDS,6.84 NY/A, 24 TD, 10 INT, 56.8 QBR) was on track for legitimate MVP consideration before a high ankle sprain suffered in their first loss of the campaign, a narrow 24-21 defeat at home to the Packers, went on to sideline him for four weeks. Furthermore, (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) J.J. Watt (16 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD) missed the final ten games after tearing his labrum, biceps, and rotator cuff in dislocating his shoulder, while (All-Pro Receiver) DeAndre Hopkins (42 REC, 572 YDS, 13.6 Y/R, 8 TD) has missed seven of the last nine outings with a bulky knee that required minor surgery a few weeks ago. Needless to say, those absences have altered the trajectory for (Head Coach) Kliff Kingsbury’s troops, who closed the regular season with four losses in their final five contests. With that said, the Cardinals still had an opportunity to win the NFC West last weekend but squandered the chance in a disappointing 38-30 defeat at home to the Seahawks. While one team had plenty to play for and the other was simply playing out the string, the hosts simply couldn’t shake the visiting side, with the affair squared away at 24-24 heading into the fourth quarter. After traveling seventy-five yards in just five plays to tie the game, Seattle would sack Murray twice on the ensuing series before recovering a poorly handled snap by (Punter) Andy Lee and recovering the football at Arizona’s 10-yard line. Three plays later and the Seahawks would punch it in for a 31-24 lead. Murray would then drive the Cards to their opponent’s 12-yard line only to settle for a (Kicker) Matt Prater field goal, before the visitors quickly struck back with a 62-yard jaunt up the middle of the field for another score. Now trailing by two possessions, the home side were again forced to settle for another field goal despite advancing within the red zone but were unable to recover the onside kick as Seattle ran out the clock. In the end, Kingsbury had to be disappointed with the outcome of this one, for despite winning the turnover battle (2-1) and possessing the football for a whopping 35:49 of game time, the Cardinals were wholly outgained 431 yards to 305, with the defense relinquishing huge plays throughout the evening. Murray attempted thirty-nine passes, completing twenty-eight for 240 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked five times for a loss of fifty-three yards, and was largely contained on the ground with thirty-five yards on five rushes. Last Sunday’s loss was their third against a non-playoff team during this recent slide, including disappointing showings against the Lions (30-12) and Colts (22-16). Of course, this skid began with a 30-23 defeat at home to the Rams, a team who they beat comprehensively back in early October (37-20). With the rematch tied 13-13 at halftime, the visitors dominated the third quarter in outscoring the hosts 14-0 in the period, as Murray was intercepted on his second pass of the quarter before turning it over downs on a 4th & 2 from Los Angeles’ 14-yard line on the next possession. Though the hosts would force a punt and respond with a six-play, 73-yard drive culminating in a short touchdown run courtesy of (veteran Tailback) James Conner (239 TCH, 1,127 YDS, 4.7 Y/T, 18 TD), LA would then bleed the clock with a 10-play, 60-yard drive that shaved off over six minutes of game time, extending their lead to 30-20 midway through the final stanza. Kingsbury would once again go for it on fourth down in Rams’ territory, only to be stopped once more before things got wild. Arizona kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to seven points, and after recovering the onside kick managed to march to midfield before Murray was sacked as time expired. Now little over a month later and these teams meet for a third time, with this encounter set to end one side’s campaign in bitter disappointment. The Cardinals have lost eight of their last nine meetings with the Rams, with Murray and Kingsbury compiling a 1-5 record since both arrived in Glendale three years ago, with expectations weighing upon both figureheads in their first postseason venture. Despite the aforementioned ankle injury, Murray progressed significantly in his third year as the starter, registering career-highs in a slew of categories including completion percentage (69.2%), yards per attempt (7.9), yards per completion (11.4), yards per game (270.5), and net yards per attempt (6.84), while still managing to feature prominently in the run game with 423 yards and five more scores. However, the former no. one overall pick must overcome an opponent that has given him a wealth of issues in the past in order to bring the franchise its first postseason victory in six years; in six meetings, Murray has beaten the Rams just once, completing 62.8% of his passes for an average of 233.2 yards on a meager 6.03 net yards per attempt, with eight total touchdowns and six turnovers. Furthermore, he’s been sacked eighteen times against them, the most that he has suffered against any single opponent in his career, including seven in their two clashes this season. On the injury front, Kingsbury will be without the aforementioned Hopkins and in all likelihood Watt as well, with reports out of the desert claiming that while he’s returned from Injured Reserve the five-time All-Pro has yet to convince enough in practice to warrant a return to the gridiron tonight. And speaking of Kingsbury, there are rumblings around the league that a loss today could place the 42-year-old on the hot seat. 24-24-1 in three seasons in Glendale, Kingsbury has overseen marginal growth with each campaign, but has also witnessed his charges suffer successive late collapses; prior to their current lack of form, the Cards were 6-3 last year before dropping five of their last seven outings en route to a middling 8-8 finish. Criticism has also been aimed at his playcalling as being too simplistic for the NFL, with opposing defenses able to counter his strategies after they’ve seen enough tape. In making the leap with a marginal CV on the collegiate level, he was always an odd choice to lead this rebuild in Arizona and given the talent on hand and the franchise’s investment in veteran help, expectations have risen considerably for a team competing in one of the most treacherous divisions in the National Football League. Is Kingsbury coaching for his job? It’s probably too early to make that call, but we have a feeling that he’s certainly being evaluated. But hey, cheer up Cardinals fans! There is a silver lining to be found in that disappointing finale: as the fifth seed, Arizona will hit the road in these playoffs feeling good about themselves after winning all but one of their nine games away from State Farm Stadium, a venue where they curiously struggled to finish 3-5.
Meanwhile, expectations may be building in the desert, but they’re nowhere near as high as they are in the City of Angels, where an absolutely CRUCIAL postseason awaits the Rams (12-5, 1st in NFC West). Despite winning their first division title in three years and advancing to the playoffs for the fourth time in the Sean McVay era, Los Angeles also backed their way into the postseason, snapping a five-game winning streak with a sluggish performance at home in the finale against the 49ers. Make no mistake, there was plenty at stake here for both sides, with LA looking to maintain their hold on the third seed in the NFC, while San Francisco needed to win in order to get into the playoffs altogether. Furthermore, this was an opportunity for McVay’s troops to end the campaign with an exclamation point in snapping a five-game losing streak to their bitter division rival. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the case as the Niners once again confounded them in a 27-24 overtime victory at SoFi Stadium. It all started out so perfectly for the hosts, who raced out to an early 17-0 lead, dominating time of possession with a 13-play, 62-yard opening salvo succeeded by a 12-play, 61-yard drive and then a quick 19-yard series following an interception of (49ers Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo. (Veteran Quarterback) Matthew Stafford (67.2%, 4,886 YDS, 7.36 NY/A, 41 TD, 17 INT, 63.5 QBR) was a surgical 13-of-14 for 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns to (Tight End) Tyler Higbee (61 REC, 560 YDS, 9.2 Y/R, 5 TD) during this assault, as the Rams headed into intermission with a commanding 17-3 lead. However, everything changed in the second half as the visitors wrestled momentum away from the home side with a pair of touchdowns drives, including a seven-play, 75-yard possession immediately followed by an 11-play, 74-yard march downfield into the end zone to square the affair away at 17-17. In turn, McVay’s charges went three and out on each of their first two possessions of the third quarter, with Stafford intercepted deep downfield on the latter. After trading punts, the Rams struck back as (All-Pro Cornerback) Jalen Ramsey (77 TKL, 9 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 INT, 16 PD) intercepted Garoppolo in the red zone, leading to Stafford engineering a nine-play, 92-yard drive culminating in a short touchdown toss to (Receiving Triple Crown winner) Cooper Kupp (145 REC, 1,947 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 16 TD). Then, after each side went three and out, San Francisco mounted a frantic, late offensive, swiftly traveling eighty-eight yards in five plays, breaching the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown from Garoppolo to Jauan Jennings to send the game into overtime. Winning the toss and choosing to hold possession first, the Niners continued their momentum in marching sixty-nine yards in a dozen plays, kicking a field goal to take a three-point lead. With one last opportunity to answer back, Los Angeles was silenced as Stafford was intercepted on a deep pass downfield to (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Odell Beckham Jr. (27 REC, 305 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 5 TD), ending the affair altogether. In the end, the Rams could muster just 265 total yards despite playing deep into overtime, as they struggled to move the football on the ground with only sixty-four yards on twenty-seven carries, while Stafford was picked off twice and sacked five times. As a result, they fell from the third seed in the NFC to the fourth, and instead of a favorable matchup against the Saints have earned this rubber match with the Cardinals, who as we stated earlier hammered them when they previously met at SoFi Stadium. So, at this point what are we to make of the Rams? Yes, they possess some serious high-end talent in the form of Stafford, Kupp, Ramsey, and (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) Aaron Donald (84 TKL, 19 TFL, 25 QBH, 12.5 SK, 4 FF, 4 PD), along with the aforementioned Beckham and (All-Pro Edge-Rusher) Von Miller (31 TKL, 12 TFL, 9 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD) who were each acquired midseason after being jettisoned by their former teams, while McVay remains one of the most respected offensive gurus that the league has to offer. However, there are plenty of flaws to be found as well in Los Angeles, who have acquired all of these stars at the expense of a wealth of draft picks which otherwise would have replenished their serious lack of depth. How big of an issue is this, you ask? Well, the Backfield has been depleted all season, leading to a rushing attack that has managed just 99.0 yards (25th Overall) on 24.7 carries per game, with both figures representing the lowest mark of the McVay era. And then there is the Secondary, which has seen the Safety position ravaged of late; LA lost leading tackler, Jordan Fuller (113 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PD) for the season with an ankle injury, while Taylor Rapp (94 TKl,2 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.5 SK, 1 FR, 4 INT, 5 PD) entered concussion protocols after last weekend’s outing, leading McVay to bring none other than Eric Weddle out of a two-year retirement for reinforcements. With that said, the biggest story coming into this postseason affair is Stafford, who will be looking to make good on the sizable investment that the franchise made in acquiring him via trade with the Lions in exchange for Jared Goff and a number of premium draft picks. In twelve years in Motown, Stafford managed to take Detroit to just three playoff appearances, losing on each occasion in the Wild Card Round. Conversely, the man he is replacing took Los Angeles all the way to Super Bowl LIII before coming up short in that affair and failing to show much growth in the years that followed, before a falling out with his Head Coach. Needless to say, this was a fascinating gamble by McVay and (General Manager) Les Snead, who basically swapped out one no. one overall pick for another, albeit a much older one. In many respects, the 33-year-old Stafford enjoyed a career year in the City of Angels, matching career-highs in completion percentage (67.2%) and passing touchdowns (41), while also setting a franchise record in passing yards (4,886), despite also leading the NFL with SEVENTEEN interceptions. There have been times this season in which McVay has appeared a little too enamored with his new Quarterback to the point where he’s eschewed the running game altogether, which has led to a plethora of turnovers from Stafford, who has tossed as many interceptions (8) as touchdowns over the last four games alone. Furthermore, opponents have become wise to this imbalance, with twenty-three of his thirty sacks coming in the last nine games, which is coincidentally a period in which he’s thrown nineteen touchdowns opposed to thirteen interceptions. The hope was with the return of a healthy (Tailback) Cam Akers () that the ground game would bring some more balance back to the attack, but that simply hasn’t been case. Either way, Stafford will have an opportunity to change the narrative that he can’t win in the playoffs and author a new chapter to his story, though he’ll need to improve upon his ledger up until this point; in three postseason outings, the Pro-Bowler has completed 63.2% of his passes for an average of 302.7 yards with 7.42 net yards per attempt, with five total touchdowns and five turnovers, though tonight’s contest will be the first that he’ll enjoy on his home field.