The Los Angeles Rams went on the road in Week 16 and although they played far from their best game, they beat the Minnesota Vikings, 30-23, to improve to 11-4 on the season.
With the Arizona Cardinals (10-5) losing once again, the Rams have now taken over sole possession of first place in the NFC West. They also officially clinched a postseason berth with their win over the Vikings.
L.A. now has two regular-season games remaining and control their own destiny for winning the division and hosting a home playoff game. Before I get into the future though, let me break down the win over the Vikings.
A positive spin on another poor Stafford performance
I would be remiss not to start with the play of Matthew Stafford because it was another poor performance overall for the Rams quarterback.
When L.A. lost three straight games in November, the main reason for it was Stafford’s inability to take care of the ball. He had multiple turnovers in all three games and oftentimes they were deep in his own territory, even being returned for touchdowns.
Over the last three games leading up to Week 16, Stafford was much better at taking care of the ball, and the result was three victories.
Well against the Vikings, Stafford was back to turning the ball over as he had three interceptions with two of them coming deep in his own territory and leading to 10 points for Minnesota.
Despite Stafford’s turnovers, which are obviously concerning, I’m going to look at his performance in a positive light.
In every other game that Stafford has played poorly this season, the Rams have lost.
This time though, he and his teammates were able to overcome the adversity of three turnovers and still hung on for the win against a tough opponent on the road.
Stafford himself turned things around after the interceptions and led a couple of big scoring drives late, and also, his teammates picked him up. The Rams defense was awesome all day, Sony Michel continued running the ball at an extremely high level, special teams finally did their part and despite missing three key offensive linemen, that unit was able to keep Stafford upright for the most part.
This was a true TEAM win for the Rams, and that’s what they will need more of going forward. While Stafford needs to be better, mistakes are gonna happen so it is good to see that his teammates are capable of picking him up and the Rams can indeed win a game when their quarterback makes a couple of bad turnovers.
Credit to McVay for changing up game plan after losing streak
For a majority of the season, Sean McVay utilized Stafford as a shotgun, dropback quarterback. While that is understandable at times given his incredible arm strength, that’s not what McVay has been in the past.
McVay became famous for being a creative play-caller, pounding the rock from under center and utilizing the play-action off of that. Not only does that take pressure off your quarterback, but the misdirection-based offense also takes pressure off your offensive line as well.
After the Rams’ three-game losing streak, McVay seems to have gotten back to what has made him so successful in the past.
The other person who deserves credit for that, of course, is Michel as he has taken over lead-back duties and ran very well, which has allowed McVay to go to the run more.
Michel had 27 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown in this game, with a ton of those yards coming after first contact.
The run game is going to be extremely important for the Rams moving forward once they get into the playoffs. Playing against top quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, etc., you’re going to have to have long, sustained drives offensively in order to keep those great players off the field.
With Michel and the potential return of Cam Akers, the Rams now have the ability to do that and more importantly, McVay has shown a willingness to do it.
Special teams finally does something
It’s no secret the Rams’ special teams (outside of Matt Gay) have been atrocious this year, but they actually did something good for a change in this game!
After a pair of Stafford interceptions early in the third quarter, it seemed like the Rams were losing momentum after having their 13-3 lead cut to 13-10.
Buddy Howell made one of the plays of the season from there though, returning a punt 61 yards for a touchdown to re-establish a two-score lead and take back momentum.
The Rams’ have had a revolving door of returners all season, but Howell has looked solid returning both kicks and punts in recent weeks so it seems that is now his job to lose moving forward.
Playoff scenarios + what’s next for the Rams…
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, it’s time to start breaking down postseason scenarios.
The Rams will travel to take on the Baltimore Ravens next week before hosting the San Francisco 49ers in the finale. If they win both of those, they will finish 13-4 and champions of the NFC West.
Currently, they are sitting in the No. 3 spot in the NFC behind the Green Bay Packers (12-3) and Dallas Cowboys (11-4) and ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4).
The Rams do not hold the tiebreaks against either the Packers or Cowboys having lost head-to-head to the former and having a worse conference record than the latter. They do own the tiebreak over the Buccaneers, however, having beaten them head-to-head.
So if the Rams finish with the same record as any of those teams, then they will be behind Green Bay and Dallas, but ahead of Tampa Bay, making a 3 seed the most likely scenario there.
Dallas is really the team worth keeping an eye on as them losing could give L.A. the chance to move up to second. They play the Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles the last two weeks.
That Cowboys-Cardinals game will definitely be one to watch as if the Cowboys win, it will be better for the Rams’ division hopes. If they lose though then that would give the Rams a better shot at the No. 2 seed, although it would also put added pressure on L.A. to take care of its own business with the Cardinals still one game behind.
Getting the No. 2 seed is in the best interest of the Rams because it would potentially give them two home games to start off the postseason. Additionally, if the 49ers end up the No. 6 seed, that is a matchup the Rams would like to avoid in the first round as opposed to the Eagles of New Orleans Saints.
There’s still a lot to be sorted out the next two weeks, so all the Rams can control is going out and beating the Ravens and 49ers.