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Feels ‘like it’s a playoff game.’ Rams know what is at stake when they face Cardinals

Rams receiver Cooper Kupp celebrates his touchdown with running back Sony Michel and tight end Tyler Higbee.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) celebrates his touchdown with running back Sony Michel (25) and tight end Tyler Higbee (89) during a game against the Jaguars on Dec. 5 at SoFi Stadium.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Five games remain in the regular season. But the Rams are not waiting for the postseason to play games they categorize as playoff-worthy.

The Rams (8-4) play the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals (10-2) at State Farm Stadium on “Monday Night Football.”

If the Cardinals keep winning, they are on track to be the top-seeded team in the NFC playoffs. The Rams are currently the fifth-seeded team.

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The Rams’ Andrew Whitworth is still a premier blocker in the NFL. ‘Sometimes you take for granted that he’s 40 years old,’ said coach Sean McVay.

But a victory over the Cardinals could set the Rams up for a run to the division title, and possibly to Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

“I feel like it’s a playoff game,” Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald said.

Coach Sean McVay agreed.

“There’s a heightened sense of awareness and urgency,” McVay said Saturday, adding, “If you don’t take care of this game, you put yourself way behind the eight-ball because they’re three games up with four to go.”

McVay and his staff were adjusting their game plan after starting right tackle Rob Havenstein and rotational cornerback Donte Deayon were put on the reserve/COVID-19 list Sunday. They joined running back Darrell Henderson, who was put on the list on Saturday.

Running back Sony Michel, who started and rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown in a 37-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 5, will start against the Cardinals.

Joe Noteboom could start at right tackle. The fourth-year pro has started at tackle and guard. Against the Jaguars, he played as an extra tight end in so-called heavy run formations.

This is not the first time the Rams characterized an important game as playoff-worthy. A few weeks ago, that’s how outside linebacker Von Miller described it going into a matchup against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

The Rams lost, 36-28.

The game against the Cardinals will offer perhaps the most accurate gauge of whether the Rams have the true makings of a Super Bowl contender.

To this point, that has been difficult to assess.

Going into this week, the Rams had defeated only two teams with winning records, the surging Indianapolis Colts and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They won those games in the second and third weeks of the season.

Then they lost to the Cardinals, 37-20, before putting together a four-game winning streak against the Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Houston Texans.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford committed two costly turnovers in each of the next three games and the Rams lost to the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers and the Packers, all playoff contenders.

Rams running back Darrell Henderson was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the team announced Saturday.

Last week’s victory over the Jaguars ended the losing streak, but it did nothing to inform if the star-laden Rams are for real.

Now they play a Cardinals team led by quarterback Kyler Murray that has flourished under third-year coach Kliff Kingsbury.

“Without a doubt, this offers a great opportunity to measure ourselves,” McVay said, “and I think we’ll get a good feel for where we’re at.”

To win on Monday, the Rams must do a better job neutralizing Murray.

In the Cardinals’ Oct. 3 victory over the Rams, the top pick in the 2019 NFL draft demonstrated the maturation that has made him a most-valuable-player candidate. He passed for 268 yards and two touchdowns and seemingly played error-free.

“He’s just growing up as the face of the franchise,” Kingsbury told Los Angeles reporters last week. “When he first got here, there was nobody showing him how to do it — it was sink or swim from Day One — he was the guy. And so we’ve had our ups and downs, had to take our lumps and kind of learn on the go, and he stayed consistent through it in his approach and his work ethic and his preparation and now it’s paying off in Year 3.

“I still think we can be a lot better, and I know he believes the same.”

Controlling Murray is only one of the challenges facing the Rams.

The Cardinals’ Kyler Murray beat the Rams with his arm and legs in an October win at SoFi Stadium. Can he do the same in the rematch Monday in Arizona?

In their first game against the Cardinals, they committed two turnovers, could not stop the run and missed numerous tackles.

In their victory over the Jaguars, the Rams did not commit a turnover and Stafford passed for three touchdowns.

Michel will start again, but it remains to be seen whether McVay will stick with a run-first approach and utilize an extra tight end in so-called “heavy” formations.

McVay said the Rams were “working through” their identity on offense.

“We did a good job of being physical, changing personnel groupings, being able to run the football, kind of dictate the terms — and then things came off of that,” McVay said of his team’s performance against the Jaguars. “Whether or not that ends up being the narrative for this week is to be determined.”


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