Rams deliver on Christmas, face the Chargers on Sunday

'Twas nearly a perfect jolly Hollywood Christmas at SoFi Stadium as the Los Angeles Rams rolled to a 51-15 crusher over the hapless visiting Denver Broncos last Sunday at SoFi Stadium. The Rams never looked better this season and now they hope to entertain a holiday sweep in Inglewood as they "go on the road" against the playoff-bound Los Angeles Chargers this Sunday, New Year's Day 2023 at SoFi Stadium.

The circumstances are completely different than anticipated when the schedule was released earlier this year for first-game regular season game ever at SoFi Stadium between the two Los Angeles franchises sharing the same facility. The defending NFL Champion Rams have been out of the playoff picture for much of this season while the Chargers have struggled at times but finally managed to qualify for the postseason with a 20-3 win over the very challenged Indianapolis Colts last Monday night.

On paper, the Chargers are a 6.5-point favorite over the Rams for the game where the starting time was changed from the late-Sunday NFL telecast to the more traditional 1:25 p.m. starting time. Due to the lack of playoff implications the game was downgraded and switched with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens matchup in the schedule. Regardless, the Rams and Baker Mayfield would love nothing better than to upset the Chargers momentum and position leading into the playoffs. The Chargers can move ahead and into the No. 5 AFC Playoff spot with a win and a Ravens loss.

This is Brandon Staley's second season as head coach of the Chargers after having served as the Rams Defensive Coordinator under head coach Sean McVay during the 2020 season. Last season Staley led the Chargers to a 9-8 record but was heavily scrutinized in several losses for play-calling including being eliminated from the playoffs in an overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in the last game of the season. After a disappointing 5-5 start this season, a healthier Justin Herbert at quarterback has given the team four wins in the past five games. The MNF win over the Colts was the Chargers first 'easy' win of the season.

The Rams had it even easier. Quarterback Mayfield directed a near-flawless offensive game plan as the Rams scored on every single possession (except for taking a knee on the last play of the game) against one of the league's top defenses. The Rams defense also had its finest showing of the season by sacking Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson six times while intercepting him four times.

The biggest loser in the aftermath was Denver rookie head coach Nathaniel Hakcett, who was fired on Monday following the loss. The Broncos spiraled to a 4-11 record this season after hiring Hackett and trading for Wilson in the off-season to bolster their chances in the tough AFC West Division. Hackett appeared to be expendable because Wilson signed a 5-year $245 million contract, but Broncos owner and CEO offered: "This isn't just about the coaching. This isn't about just Nathaniel. This is about the entire football operation."

"Everybody's frustrated," admitted Hackett in his last press conference as the Bronco's head coach following Sunday's loss. "That was a bad game, embarrassing game. That's the first one that we had like that, and I know everybody's frustrated. We addressed it. In the end, you can't turn the ball over like we did, especially early in the game. And we got to be sure we're stopping the run. Yeah, it's across the board."

The injury-riddled 5-11 Rams are playing their best football with only two games left in what has been a disappointing season for the Super Bowl defending champions. Mayfield has led the Rams to two wins in past three games, including the second highest game passing completion percentage (24 of 28 for 85.71%) of his career.

"For us to play a complete game like that speaks volumes," said Mayfield. "Everybody keeps talking about the fact that we're eliminated from the playoffs, but this is a locker room that wants to compete and wants to win any chance you have and any opportunity that we can get. It's been fun. It is a special locker room and I'm happy to be a part of it."

Rejuvenated running back Cam Akers had his best game of the season, rushing for 118 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns. Akers leads the league in rushing touchdowns over the last four weeks with six while increasing his team rushing lead with 559 yards and seven touchdowns.

But it was Tyler Higbee who continued to climb the Rams all-time tight end list. Higbee caught nine passes for 94 yards and two touchdown receptions against Denver's secondary to become the team's all-time leader for tight ends with 20 touchdowns, 299 receptions, and 3,063 receiving yards in his seven-year career. The nine receptions were a season high, and it was the third time in his career that that he had multiple touchdowns in a game.

Coach McVay had this to say about Akers. "Cam Akers was excellent in the running game. I thought our offensive line, when we had to protect, I thought they did a great job getting removal. And then for (TE) Tyler Higbee to be able to break the franchise record as a tight end, for yards, touchdown receptions and catches, it's awesome. He's such a stud, but there was a lot of guys that were instrumental in the win today."

The Chargers will have no fewer than five former Rams on their roster for the New Years Day matchup. Tight end Gerald Everett, running back Sony Michel, linebacker Troy Reeder, defensive ends Morgan Fox and Sebastian Joseph-Day all played under McVay and figured prominently at some point in a Rams uniform. The Rams have one player on their roster who played for the Chargers last season, offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, who registered 64 offensive plays and nine special team plays against Denver. However, Aboushi was suspended for one game for fighting with Broncos defensive end Randy Gregory during the game and will not play against the Chargers.

During Monday's media conference McVay reflected on Hackett's dismissal as Denver's head coach: "Nate's a friend of mine. It's a tough part of this business and it's why you never take anything for granted, but Nate's a great coach. I think if there's anything that this year has taught me, I don't think you can ever let one year or a small inventory of circumstances define your self-worth and who you are as a coach, and he'll be back on his feet and have a lot of success in this league like he's had. And it's one of those deals, tough times don't last, tough people do, and I know Nate Hackett's a tough guy."


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