Rams step into the Monday Night Football Spotlight

The Los Angeles Rams' slim chances to win the NFC West begins with a primetime road showdown against the Division-leading Arizona Cardinals (10-2) for Monday Night Football at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Down two games in the loss column, the game is a must-win for the Rams (8-4) to have any chance of hosting an NFC Playoff game in January.

A solid 37-7 home-win against the Jacksonville Jaguar this past Sunday at SoFi Stadium was an important first step for quarterback Matthew Stafford leading up to a challenging last five games of the regular season. After raising expectations with excellent performances and results in the first eight games of 2021, Stafford and the rest of the Rams took a three-game nose-dive. But the 2-10 Jaguars provided the perfect prop to right the ship in quick order, as all three phases of the Rams team made an impact.

"But winning the turnover battle things it really came to life," said head coach Sean McVay. "We didn't turn the football over offensively, we got takeaways, we got after the quarterback. There's a lot of things that were really very positive about today." The Rams are a perfect 44-0 when leading at halftime under McVay, something he jokingly hopes the media will not ask about with each subsequent halftime-leading win.

"And if you have different approaches, it doesn't necessarily mean that it can't be better," said McVay while taking the opportunity to address the upcoming Arizona game when asked about effectively employing running back Sony Michel against Jacksonville. "That was what we felt like was the best way to approach the Jaguars game yesterday. Whether or not that's the approach that we take against the Cardinals is something that we will worked through throughout the course of the week."

The Arizona Cardinals won their first seven games of the season, including shellacking the Rams, 37-20, in Game 4 at SoFi. Both teams were undefeated at the time with Los Angeles having won the previous eight games between the two. The Rams did recover from the loss, won the next four games to temporarily tie the Cardinals for the NFC West lead at 7-1, before suffering its three-game slide.

Quarterback Kyler Murray just returned from a three-game absence to lead the Arizona to a comfortable 33-22 win at Chicago this past Sunday. He was rehabbing an ankle injury received in a home-loss to the Green Bay Packers during Week 8. Murray showed very little rust against the Bears, completing 11 of 15 passes for 123 yards and two passing touchdowns, and ran 10 times for 59 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He also leads all NFL starting quarterbacks with a 112.2 rating and a 72.7 completion percentage.

Stafford, who led in the league quarterback ratings for much of the season, is just behind Murray with a 106.3 rating. Against the Jaguars he completed 26 of 38 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. Importantly, Stafford did not have a single turnover after committing five total in the previous three losses. He also completed another pass over 40 yards for the league-leading 13th time this season. That's three more than Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers.

During the loss to the Cardinals in early October, Stafford completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson to give the Rams a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter. Five minutes later Murray matched it a 14-yard touchdown pass to Maxx Williams for a 14-10 lead, and Arizona never looked back. The 24-13 halftime lead grew to 37-13 late in the fourth quarter. Though Murray was sacked three times during the game, he didn't commit a turnover and matched Stafford with two touchdown passes.

After that game Stafford said, "It boils down to early in the game, missing some opportunities, whether it be on third down or in the red zone to score some points against a team that, frankly, was going to be scoring some points on offense. A really talented group they have over there. And we knew it was going to have to be one of those games where kind of blow for blow."

Cardinal head coach Cliff Kingsbury, who had lost his first four games coaching against the Rams before the October win had this to say after that game. "I thought both fronts of ours really played physical and set the tone. Defensive line, we knew we had to get in his face. He's such a great player, Stafford, and try to disrupt the timing. They still had some big-time plays, but I thought we did just enough to create some turnovers and really turn the tide."

As expected, plenty of Rams picked up their performances against the Jaguars. For the umpteenth time defensive tackle Aaron Donald led the defense with a quarterback sack (and one that was negated) and seven quarterback pressures. He also forced a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines were very steady. Linebacker Ernest Jones made the most of his start in place of Troy Reeder with nine tackles and a half quarterback sack.

The Rams offensive line rebounded with a solid game, allowing only one sack while setting up the slots for running back Sony Michel to attack. Michel had 24 carries for 121 yards and one 5-yard touchdown rush. It marked only the sixth time this season the Rams have rushed over 100 yards for a game. It was also the first 100-yard rusher for the team this season. The Rams rushed for 121 yards in the Cardinal loss. They'll need an equal or greater effort if they expect to win in the rematch.

Cooper Kupp was again the number one target, catching eight of 10 targets for 121 yards and one touchdown, a 29-yard catch in the third quarter. Van Jefferson caught a 2-yard touchdown pass late in third quarter and Odell Beckham Jr. caught a one yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Beckham Jr. now has touchdown catches in two consecutive games since joining the Rams three games ago. Tight end Tyler Higbee caught five passes for 48 yards, saving drives with a couple fine grabs of off-targeted passes.

Even if the Rams beat the Cardinals on Monday they would still remain one game back of first place with four games remaining. If both teams tie with the same record at the end of the season, Arizona still wins the tie-breaking procedure. In order for the Rams to win the NFC West, they need to win all five remaining regular season games and have Arizona lose three of their remaining five games. That would give the Rams a 13-4 projected record compared to 12-4 for the Cardinals.

Murray thought the Cardinals were spot on during his first-ever win against the Rams. "I was pretty confident coming into this game with the game plan we had, the week of practice that we put together and probably the best game plan, I think personally, that we've had since I've been in the league."

The Rams last four games are at home against the Seattle Seahawks, followed by two consecutive road games against the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens. They end their season with at SoFi Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers on January 9. The Rams beat the Seahawks, 26-17, in Week 5 and lost to the Niners, 31-10, in Week 10.

The Cardinals last four games are at the Detroit Lions followed by a home game against the Indianapolis Colts. They visit the Dallas Cowboys on January 2 before hosting the Seahawks on the last day of the regular season. The Cardinals readily took care of the Niners, 31-17, in Week 9, and the Seahawks, 23-13, in Week 11. They have a perfect 4-0 record in the Division and a 6-2 mark in the Western Conference. The Rams have a 1-2 NFC West record and a 5-3 Conference record.


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