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NFL roundtable: Rams, Chargers still can win their wild West divisions

Justin Herbert, left, celebrates with receiver Jalen Guyton.
Justin Herbert, left, celebrates with receiver Jalen Guyton after the Chargers completed a 59-yard touchdown pass against the Giants. Guyton stepped up in the absence of leading receiver Keenan Allen.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams recorded their biggest win of the season, beating the NFC West-leading Cardinals in Arizona. On Thursday, the Chargers play host to their AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs. With four games remaining, the playoff race is heating up. Moderated by Los Angeles Times NFL editor Athan Atsales, Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller and NFL writer Sam Farmer discuss what’s ahead:

What do you think was different about the Chargers’ approach on offense minus their top receiver, Keenan Allen? It obviously was a good approach.

Miller: Joshua Palmer replaced Allen and basically assumed all of his responsibilities, a particularly impressive jump for a rookie and a sign of his early development. Minus his favorite target, Justin Herbert was forced to look elsewhere, leading to nine different Chargers having receptions.

Farmer: And the Chargers stayed committed to the run — balanced that attack among Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley. Not having Keenan Allen allowed the Chargers to test their depth at receiver. Jalen Guyton looks like he’s rounding into a more complete receiver, not just a speed guy, and Joshua Palmer is really starting to step up.

The Rams came into the NFC West showdown also shorthanded — on both sides of the ball. What was the most surprising thing about how they were able to compensate?

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Klein: The entire performance was surprising. After the Rams went three and out on their first possession, I wondered if Sean McVay would abandon the run-first, heavy-formation scheme he used against the Jaguars and let Matthew Stafford play backyard football. To beat the team with the best record in the NFL — and to do it withso many key players out because of injuries or COVID-19 issues — was a testament to McVay and his staff making all kinds of adjustments, and to the unsung players who stepped into important roles and came through.

Rams head coach Sean McVay smiles as he slaps the helmet of wide receiver Van Jefferson.
Sean McVay, shown smiling as he slaps the helmet of wide receiver Van Jefferson, might have coached his best game with the Rams.
(Ralph Freso / Associated Press)

Farmer: Hard to overstate how impressive the Rams performed that way having lost four starters — and losing them after all the practices and preparations were done. Most coaches will never face that situation in their entire careers. And “four starters” doesn’t even do it justice. Three key components on offense and an All-Pro corner. That just doesn’t happen. There was the beatdown the Rams delivered at Seattle in 2017 and the NFC Championship game win at New Orleans the next season, but all things considered, this was the most impressive win of the Sean McVay era.

The Chargers defense wasn’t as good as the offense against the Giants, who converted half of their third-down opportunities and averaged more than five yards per carry. What must the Chargers adjust against the Chiefs offense?

Miller: Don’t be fooled by the final stats. The Chargers dominated the Giants, who had 174 yards of total offense and nine first downs with 9½ minutes to go. But beyond both being right-handed, Mike Glennon has little in common with Patrick Mahomes. So much of this Kansas City game will depend on the availability of Derwin James Jr. His return from a hamstring problem would be adjustment enough for any defense.

Joshua Palmer, taking over for Keenan Allen in the slot, played a big role in the Chargers’ 37-21 victory over the New York Giants.

Farmer: Forcing turnovers is key, and the Chiefs have been prone to them during long stretches this season. Yes, it would really help to have Derwin James and also Asante Samuel Jr., who’s coming off a concussion. Obviously, the Chargers have to turn up the heat on Patrick Mahomes.

Speaking of defense, Ernest Jones’ red-zone interception for the Rams seemed to change the whole outlook on the game since it appeared the Cardinals were about to take a 10-0 lead. Instead, shortly thereafter, the Rams took a 7-3 lead. How much of a difference-maker has Jones been since he became the starter?

Klein: The Rams traded Kenny Young in October to create salary-cap space — but also because they thought Jones was ready to start. In his first start against the Houston Texans, he intercepted a pass. So his performance against the Cardinals was a continuation of his growth.

The Rams proved they can beat a team with a winning record, Matthew Stafford shined and players stepped up to replace 5 teammates on COVID list.

Farmer: [Former Ram] D’Marco Farr was talking about Ernest Jones in training camp, saying the Rams might as well start giving him starter reps right away. Farr, a defensive tackle-turned-sideline reporter, said Jones not only has the height, weight, speed and range to cover a modern-day star linebacker, but the smarts to pull it off. I talked to Farr on Tuesday morning and he raved about Jones getting better by the week. “He understands defense, schemes, passing lanes,” he said. “Last night, he baited Kyler Murray like a safety, stayed out of his eye range, almost put on camouflage, then popped out of nowhere to make the pick.” Impressive.

Odell Beckham Jr. had an important impact on the game and looked much more comfortable. Why did he seem to be a different receiver against Arizona?

Klein: Beckham is clearly enjoying breaking out various touchdown celebrations. Let’s remember, he’s played only four games with the Rams, and he had only one day of preparation for his first against the 49ers. In each of the last three games, he caught touchdown passes. A long one against the Green Bay Packers, another on a short fade route against the Jaguars and an impressive one on a short slant against the Cardinals. He also had a 40-yard catch and run against the Cardinals. But his most impressive catch was a tough one over the middle. On that play he showed toughness reminiscent of Robert Woods. Bottom line: He’s feeling more comfortable with the offense and Matthew Stafford.

Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. makes a touchdown catch in front of Cardinals cornerback Marco Wilson.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

Farmer: Great summation by Gary. I have to admit I was skeptical about Beckham coming in midseason and finding his place in the offense, and when Matthew Stafford opened the San Francisco game by forcing a deep ball to him and it was picked, I thought this could be a problem. Felt like the Rams might be trying to appease OBJ. I was wrong. They’ve incorporated him into the offense, deep and short stuff, and he’s a problem for defenses. The Rams still miss Robert Woods, but Beckham will only get more productive.

A couple of weeks ago, it didn’t appear the Rams had a chance to catch the Cardinals in the NFC West, the division winners getting an advantage in the playoffs. Do you think the Rams will overtake Arizona?

Klein: The victory over the Cardinals should give the Rams confidence that they can win all of their remaining games, including NFC West games at home against the Seahawks and the 49ers, and road games at Minnesota and Baltimore. The Cardinals have only one more division game — against the Seahawks — and games against the Lions, Colts and Cowboys. This is all about closing strong, and as the Rams get players back, they will be positioned to do that and overtake the Cardinals.

Matthew Stafford obliterated doubts about his ability to win big games with a brilliant performance in the Rams’ 30-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Farmer: Well, I’d be surprised if the Rams overtook the Cardinals in the division race. My gut says the Rams are going to be hitting the road for the playoffs. That said, they are well-equipped to make a deep postseason run. Nobody’s excited to play the Rams right now. Of course, every time a team rises above the fray this season, it seems to get slapped down. So the Rams need to follow this performance with a string of strong ones. Remember, the previous time the Rams beat a winning team in Week 3 against Tampa Bay, they followed that up with a humbling home loss to Arizona. So it’s foolish to think too far ahead.

Speaking of big games, what is your prediction for the Chiefs at Chargers ... as in what kind of game do you expect?

Farmer: Should be a shootout. Well, could be. Both defenses are playing better than they had been in recent weeks. Neither team runs the ball great, so the onus should be on the two playmaking quarterbacks. I like the Chiefs defense lately and the Chargers offense.

If Rashawn Slater, who’s on the COVID-19 list, cannot play Thursday against Kansas City, the Chargers will have a major void to fill at left tackle.

Miller: The Chiefs have taken their defense to new heights over the last two months. They were giving up nearly 33 points a game through five weeks, but only one of their last eight opponents have topped 17. So how about a low-scoring struggle? OK, maybe not low-scoring, exactly. But, unlike recent meetings with K.C., the question Thursday might be: Can the Chargers keep pace with the Chiefs defense?


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