After the Rams’ impressive NFC wild-card 34-11 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, it’s on to Tampa Bay to face Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in the divisional round of the playoffs. Moderated by Los Angeles Times’ NFL editor Athan Atsales, Rams beat writer Gary Klein, columnists Dylan Hernandez, Bill Plaschke and Helene Elliott, and NFL writer Sam Farmer discuss their prospects.
What was most impressive about the Rams’ defensive effort and game plan against Arizona considering they were so short-handed in the secondary?
Plaschke: The Rams’ best defense was a terrible Arizona offense. Kyler Murray played quarterback like a great baseball player. He never got over losing his favorite receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The Rams’ pressure was too much him.
Elliott: One factor that made their defensive effort so impressive was consistency — as in they were relentless. And they made a very good quarterback in Kyler Murray look very bad. They never let him get on a roll and never let the Cardinals get any momentum. Every player seamlessly fit into a cohesive whole.
Klein: Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Aaron Donald wrecked the game the last time they played, and Donald, as usual, was at the epicenter Monday night. Everything revolves around him, and Von Miller and Leonard Floyd are almost impossible to deal with as complements. The secondary might have been short-handed but it didn’t matter because the front discombobulated Kyler Murray. Just as impressive was the performance by unsung players such as linebacker Troy Reeder, whose hit on Kyler Murray led to David Long Jr.’s pick six. It came full circle for Long, who lost his starting job after struggling against the Cardinals in October.
Farmer: Just look at the way these guys contained Kyler Murray, who torched them when the teams played at SoFi during the regular season. The Rams owned the line of scrimmage this time — on both sides of the ball, actually — and it’s precisely what they need to do at Tampa Bay.
Hernandez: Before we get carried away talking about how great the Rams defense was, I think we have to consider the possibility that the Cardinals were just a really, really, really bad team. The Cardinals looked like a team that finished the regular season on a 1-4 skid. They looked like a team that lost to the Detroit Lions. And, yup Bill, Kyler Murray looked as if he should consider giving baseball another try.
How much different do you feel about the Rams’ prospects now that they’ve won a playoff game following that home loss to San Francisco? Some guy named Sam Farmer told me this is exactly what would happen against the Cardinals. So, was this a product of Rams improvement or a slumping Cardinals team?
Plaschke: If Matthew Stafford continues to play like this — he had the highest passer rating in Rams playoff history! — then this team can go to the Super Bowl. He can certainly outduel Tom Brady without his best running game and without Antonio Brown. He can also lead them to victory against an overrated Green Bay team.
Klein: Well, the Rams improved in that Matthew Stafford did not commit a turnover and they got good performances from running backs Sony Michel and Cam Akers. But the Cardinals are the definition of a slumping team. The loss of receiver DeAndre Hopkins because of a season-ending knee injury suffered against the Rams proved enormous.
Farmer: The Rams have won six out of seven. The Cardinals lost five of their last six. This was the definition of ships passing in the night. But yes, aside from their deflating finale against San Francisco, the Rams generally have been getting better by the week. Certainly moving in the right direction.
Elliott: Never disregard Sam Farmer’s predictions. And I agree with both Sam and Gary that while the Rams do seem to be getting their act together, dominating the slumping Cardinals might not mean much besides giving them a bit of confidence against the Bucs.
Hernandez: I think it’s hard to draw any conclusions when the opponent is that bad, but I’ll say this: That was the best the Rams have looked in a while. Previously, they looked flawed even in games they won, so this should be considered a step forward.
Now that Cam Akers is rounding into shape, does the Akers-Sony Michel combination seem as if it might be more effective than Michel-Darrell Henderson?
Hernandez: Akers led the Rams with 17 carries, which should tell you what the Rams think of him. This is the guy they want out there.
Plaschke: Akers is the key. If he can stay on the field and the Rams can run the ball 30 times a game for at least 120 yards, they’re going to be tough to stop.
Klein: Hard to tell, though, on the comparison. Michel-Henderson was effective when Henderson was not injured, and Henderson had shown improved pass-catching skills. Akers demonstrated his talent against the Cardinals on the pass from Odell Beckham Jr. The thing about Akers, if you recall, is that he scored a touchdown against the Packers in the playoffs last year on a direct snap, one of several times Sean McVay utilized him that way. That was the kind of thing that got McVay so excited about what he could do with Akers.
Farmer: I would compare Akers to Joe Mixon in Cincinnati, or for some throwback references Ricky Watters or Roger Craig. Akers isn’t there yet, of course, by he compares stylistically. Although he doesn’t seem to have that raw explosiveness, he has plenty of straight-line speed and reliable hands to catch the ball out of the backfield. I think he’s a rarer talent than Henderson. Remember how C.J. Anderson stepped in to help the Rams so much in 2018? Akers is an upgrade from that.
First thoughts on facing Tampa Bay, which is short-handed because of injuries but has this pretty good quarterback.
Plaschke: Bucs are great, but they’ve pretty much skated through the season, and they were able to skate through their first-round win against the junior varsity from Philadelphia. They won’t be able to handle the Rams pressure. Rams win, and fairly easily.
Klein: The 49ers helped the Rams by beating the Cowboys, giving the Rams a better matchup in Tampa rather than having to play at Green Bay. And I just checked the weather app on my phone. The forecast for Tampa on Sunday: 63 degrees with a 30% chance of rain. Forecast for Green Bay: Partly sunny and 12 degrees.
Farmer: The key for Tampa Bay will be holding off the Rams’ pass rush long enough for Tom Brady to take advantage of those swapped out safeties. That trio of tight ends — Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard — can cause problems, especially with Jalen Ramsey occupied with Mike Evans. But buying time for Brady won’t be easy with the Buccaneers’ broken-down offensive line. This is not a good matchup for Tampa, and the Rams aren’t scared of this team. But hey, it’s Brady. He has won 34 playoff games. Matthew Stafford has won one.
Hernandez: Listening to the Rams players after the Cardinals game, I was struck by the reverence with which they spoke about Tom Brady. The Rams have beaten him in each of the past two regular seasons, but we know Regular Season Brady and Playoff Brady aren’t the same player.
Elliott: That Brady guy seems to be pretty good. The Rams will have to be near-perfect against Tampa Bay to have a chance, and even with injuries the Buccaneers are formidable.
If you were a Rams fan, and their team got past Tampa Bay, whom do you think they’d prefer the Rams play next: The 49ers (who seem to have L.A.’s number) at home or the Packers in Green Bay?
Plaschke: Are you serious with this question? The Rams will be much better in front of a raging SoFi crowd that will not be selling their tickets to 49ers fans. Stay the hell away from freezing Lambeau. Get the Niners at home and go to the Super Bowl.
Klein: C’mon. Of course they would rather play the 49ers at home! Now, the Rams might have to devise some crazy app that prevents season-ticket holders from selling their seats to 49ers fans, but you can be sure that Sean McVay would love nothing more than another chance to end his streak of futility against Kyle Shanahan in a game that could send the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Hernandez: The 49ers’ size on the line presents a matchup problem, but you have to take the home game if you can get it.
Farmer: No question, they would prefer San Francisco at SoFi. Look, would they rather it be Aaron Rodgers standing between them and the Super Bowl … or Jimmy Garoppolo? Yes, the 49ers have their number. Yes, that would be a brutally physical game and slowing the 49ers’ ground attack would be a big task. But if the Rams could play host to the conference championship game, even against a team that swept them during the regular season, they would jump at the chance.