Rams beat Minnesota, take on Baltimore on Sunday
December 30, 2021
Now that Los Angeles Rams have qualified for the NFL Playoffs for the fourth time in five years, they have a chance to secure their third NFC West Division title with Sean McVay as the head coach. They can clinch the Division with a win at the Baltimore Ravens combined with a loss by the Arizona Cardinals at the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday.
Three weeks ago, the Rams were in a dire situation to win the NFC West for the first time since the 2018 season. They were two games behind the Cardinals, but also needed to have a better record than Arizona to win the Division due to tie-breaking procedures. Three weeks later, the Rams (11-4) are riding a four-game winning streak coinciding with the suddenly reeling Cards’ (10-5) three-game losing streak with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Rams late-season surge is notable as they have had to deal with constant roster, practice, and scheduling changes due to the COVID pandemic and the policies that have allowed the NFL to continue the season without unwanted interruption. Yet, the Rams have persevered despite having up to 30 players on the COVID quarantine lists over the past three weeks. Their game against the Ravens this Sunday was rescheduled to the earlier 10:00 a.m. PT as the latest change.
“I like it. We would be in favor of that. I think it's better. We've learned to kind of travel on those short trips… but those early window trips on East Coast time zones or Central Time zones, our guys handle it well,” said McVay. “The last three weeks have been such a whirlwind, being able to look at actually having three legitimate days of preparation feels like we'll have three weeks. So, that's a good thing but I was actually encouraged by that.”
A few years ago, the Rams would leave on a Friday for a Sunday 10:00 a.m. kickoff time. But the COVID protocols last season forced them to change and alter their travel plans to the Midwest and East Coast. The team has embraced that change and now don’t leave for back east until Saturday, or the day before the game. “We learned last year is that additional night of sleep in their own bed, trying to keep as much of a normal rhythm and routine for the players was what we felt like was best,” McVay said.
That change served Los Angeles well when they defeated the Vikings, 30-23, during the early start last Sunday in Minnesota. Despite quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing three interceptions against the Vikings, the Rams offensive front line, running back Sony Michel, wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., and tight end Tyler Higbee kept the team in the lead for the entire game.
With a revamped, make-shift offensive line, the Rams were able to keep Stafford from being sacked in the game for only the third time this season. The emergence of Michel in the backfield has been a key ingredient and has created the offensive balance the Rams were lacking when they suffered a three-game skid that put them behind the Cardinals in mid-season. Michel rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown. It was his second 100+ yard rushing game in the last four, coinciding with the Rams latest winning streak.
Cooper Kupp continued to break more receiving records while catching 10 passes for 109 yards. He currently leads the league with 132 catches, 1,734 yards receiving and 14 touchdown receptions. He also became the first NFL player to have at least 90+ receiving yards in 14 games for a season, breaking a tie with elite receivers Michael Irvin and Antonio Brown. He now has 90+ yards receiving in 11 straight games.
Beckham Jr. caught his fourth touchdown pass since joining the Rams six games ago. He is starting to feel comfortable in the offense since team captain and wide receiver Robert Woods season-ending injury six weeks ago. He was targeted eight times against Minnesota, catching four passes for 37 yards. Three of the missed targets were inaccurate throws by Stafford. Higbee returned after a two-game absence due to COVID and was instrumental in extending drives, catching five passes for 41 yards.
On defense, Aaron Donald, having another Defensive Player of the Year season, created destruction and seemed to roam at will in the Vikings’ offensive backfield. Donald had five combined tackles, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits (and many pressures), along with a forced fumble. The Rams defensive front caused Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to fumble the ball three times. Linebacker Travin Howard got his first career interception, a critical turnover at the Rams 2-yard line as the Vikings were about to take the lead with seven seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The Rams will take on a struggling Baltimore Ravens team Sunday. The Ravens had the best record in the AFC in late November. However, the Ravens have lost four straight games and are suddenly on the outside of the AFC Playoff picture. Quarterback Josh Johnson made his first start in Baltimore’s 41-21 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday. He replaced Tyler Huntley, who had replaced the injured Lamar Jackson two weeks previously in a 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Jackson injured his ankle against the Browns and has yet to practice. Johnson is slated to start against the Rams because Huntley is on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Johnson put up solid numbers in the loss to the Bengals, completing 28 of 40 passes for 304 yards. He threw two touchdowns, one to the Ravens leading receiver, Mark Andrews, and one to Rashad Bateman, but he also an intercepted. The Ravens rushing game was also challenged, gaining only 39 yards on 16 carries.
The Ravens’ defense has been unraveling. They allowed Bengal quarterback Joe Burrow to throw for 525 yards and four touchdowns. It was only the 26th time in NFL history that a quarterback has thrown for over 500 yards. Interestingly, Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin was the first to accomplish that feat against the New York Yanks in the opening game of the 1951 season at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The 554 yards he threw that day is still the NFL record.
The Rams received mixed news at the running back position. The good news is Cam Akers has recovered from a torn Achilles injury sustained in July that was supposed to have sidelined him for the entire season. He has been activated and may see action against the Ravens. Unfortunately, running back Darrell Henderson suffered an MCL injury after a physical 17-yard run against Minnesota. He was placed on the injured reserve list and is expected to miss at least three weeks.
“This guy's done such a great job. He's earned the right to be able to get on this roster and it looks like there's a possibility of him contributing as soon as this week actually on the field,” said McVay when asked about activating Akers and incorporating the running game more in recent games.
“I think it was more of getting back to our foundational roots and not losing sight of that,” said McVay. “Being able to control the game on our terms, even though we did turn it over three times, was a huge credit to the team. I think there's just been more of a commitment to try to be a little bit more balanced.”