NFL roundtable: Why Rams, Chargers must win last three games
The Chargers and Rams are very much in the thick of the playoff races, and the Rams still have a good chance to win the NFC West and earn a home playoff game. They have three difficult opponents to go, however, and the first two are on the road. The Chargers close with two division games after a trip to Houston. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Los Angeles Times NFL writer Sam Farmer and columnist Dylan Hernandez discuss what has happened and prospects ahead:
Three times the Chargers could have kicked field goals against Kansas City last week when they failed on fourth down. How many times did you think, “Hmmm, might want to kick this one?”
Hernandez: This is what the Chargers do under Brandon Staley, so I wasn’t surprised. But, yeah, like pretty much everyone else who was watching, I’m programmed to think a team should kick in those situations. The situation reminded me a little of when teams started using extreme shifts in baseball. When the moves would backfire, people would scream bloody murder. Over time, such strategy has become more and more a part of the game, to the point where no one even blinks now. I’m guessing that will be the case here.
Klein: I kind of get lost in the daze — and haze — of analytics so I can’t recall every situation. The one at the end of the first half seemed like a no-brainer, at least in retrospect. But I agree with Dylan: This is what Staley does and, in my experience dealing with him when he was the Rams defensive coordinator, he’s going to have a plan and stick to it. And I’m glad Dylan brought up shifts in baseball. Don’t like them. They sap excitement from the game. Whereas going for it on fourth down in football adds excitement for teams and fans.
Miller: The only decision that was questioned by the analytics robots or the humans that power them was the one right before the half. And that call was nearly 50/50. As long as there’s a solid foundation, I’m all-in on these fourth-down decisions that are happening around the league. It’s a new era and Brandon Staley is among those coaches out front.
The Chargers had the opportunity to win their biggest game of the season, but coach Brandon Staley’s continued insistence to go on fourth down cost his team the game.
Farmer: Still, that goes through my mind just about every time a team passes on a field goal to go for it on fourth down. It seems to be happening more and more, and I always get that feeling — as when a team misses a PAT — that it’s going to come back and haunt them. Then again, as you guys said, that’s how Brandon Staley likes to play, and he makes no apologies for it. Earlier in the season, the Chargers had a three-game winning streak and were six of seven on fourth-down conversions during that run. Those were key plays in those wins. So this high-risk, high-reward conversation would have sounded very different then.
Because of the delayed game, do you think the short week is going to have a huge effect on the Rams with a trip ahead to play the Minnesota Vikings amid COVID chaos?
Farmer: The effects of a Tuesday-Sunday combination over Christmas weekend? There’s not a lot of data on that, so we’ll know a lot more once the game happens. What the Rams have proven is they’re a mentally tough team, something that wasn’t entirely apparent earlier in the season. But to go into Arizona and learn four hours before kickoff that you won’t have two of your best players … then still win? That was big. It will help them that they’ll automatically get right tackle Rob Havenstein off the COVID list.
Klein: The trip to Minnesota, with travel on the day after Christmas, was going to be tough on the Rams even if they were still on a regular schedule. Doing it four days after playing the Seahawks — while still shuffling the roster because of COVID-19 issues, makes it even more difficult. And the Vikings are 7-7, have won two games in a row and are still in the playoff hunt. And yet, like Sam said … the Rams showed resilience amid chaos and beat the Cardinals and the Seahawks. They could continue to bond and beat the Vikings.
Sony Michel continues to impress with his downhill running for the Rams since injury made him the starter. Might the Rams be more effective with Darrell Henderson as the change-of-pace back and stick with Michel as the lead back?
Hernandez: Sean McVay has talked a lot in recent weeks about his team’s toughness. Michel’s running style might be more in line with that identity.
Farmer: No question. It wasn’t the splashiest move when Les Snead traded two Day 3 picks for Michel, but it has paid dividends. Michel is what Sean McVay needs in this offense, a guy you can grind out the physical, tough yards. In each of the past few games, Michel has gotten one short-yardage first down on his own. Darrell Henderson is a good complementary back but can’t stay healthy as the No. 1 guy. What I’m wondering is if we’ll see Cam Akers [Achilles injury] in the playoffs, providing the Rams get that far.
Despite a COVID outbreak that moved the game to Tuesday, the Rams defeated the Seattle Seahawks 20-10 to move into a first-place tie in the NFC West.
Klein: I have been floating this idea for weeks — and no I don’t have a Fantasy team with Michel on the roster. ... Full transparency: I do not play in any Fantasy leagues. But when Tyler Higbee was declared out against Arizona, Dylan texted me instantaneously wanting to know who would start in his place. Just to play with Dylan’s mind, Sam immediately claimed Kendall Blanton — while laughing hysterically. He then released him so Dylan could grab him.
What should Chargers fans be worried about when their highly favored team goes to Houston to play the Texans, who have a 3-11 record?
Hernandez: Their team not kicking field goals on fourth down!
Klein: Oh, Dylan ...
Farmer: With a beat-up secondary, the Chargers have to be thinking about that Davis Mills-to-Brandin Cooks connection (Note: Cooks was put on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday). That’s no joke, especially with Derwin James playing hurt, Asante Samuel Jr. still in the concussion protocol and Tevaughn Campbell on the COVID list.
The Chargers placed No. 2 QB Chase Daniel and backup DL Joe Gaziano on the COVID-19 reserve list Tuesday. Those moves brought to nine the number of players added to the list in two days.
Miller: Houston has beaten Jacksonville twice and topped Tennessee on a day when the Titans turned the ball over five times. So the short answer to this question is COVID. The Chargers began Wednesday with nine players on the virus list. Who knows what that number will be by the time this game kicks off.
With three games to go — at Houston, versus Denver, at Las Vegas — how many do you think the Chargers need to win to qualify for the playoffs?
Farmer: To breathe easy, the Chargers need to win all three. There’s too much of an 8-6, 7-7 logjam in the AFC. Getting past Houston is mandatory, of course, but the Chargers cannot let themselves be swept by Denver. So let’s see where they are after the next two weeks. Very little margin for error now.
Miller: The Chargers should be favored in all three games. Not that that means much. Two victories gets them to 10, which almost certainly would be enough. If they finish 9-8 there are just too many tiebreaking scenarios that could cloud their path. My question, where would they be if they end up 9-7-1? Hey, gotta consider all the possibilities, right?
There have been seasons when some player has a magical, record-breaking campaign. What kind of magic are we seeing with the Rams’ Cooper Kupp? Could this be one of those seasons where people one day say: “Remember when ... ?”
Klein: First of all, “Remember When” is one of my favorite songs by Alan Jackson. I’m getting sentimental and all choked up just thinking about it. Maybe that’s how Rams fans will think about Kupp’s 2021 season. He has already broken the team record for catches in a season. He could break other team and league records. But to be truly memorable, he needs to finish it with a good performance in a Super Bowl victory.
Farmer: I love that song, too, Gary. Think about the great receivers the Rams have had in their history. For Kupp to be rewriting the record books 14 games in is pretty remarkable.
Cooper Kupp is having a record-breaking season, and the Rams wide receiver’s big game against the Seahawks proves he’s truly a top-level athlete.
Hernandez: You hear a lot about how smart he is, but you don’t hear enough about how fun he is to watch. The number of different things he can do to catch a ball is really impressive. It leaves you wondering what’s next.
Rams have consecutive road games with playoff contenders, the second being the Baltimore Ravens, before coming home to finish against another playoff-minded team, NFC West rival San Francisco. Do you think the Rams, currently tied record-wise with the Arizona Cardinals, will win the division?
Hernandez: I’m not sold on the Rams or the Cardinals. The Rams have some big-time players who can make big-time plays, as they showed in the win against the Seahawks, but they have some major holes. The Cardinals just lost to the freakin’ Lions. The COVID situation adds even more uncertainty. I wouldn’t bet on either team.
A stifling defensive effort coupled with heroics from Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp carry the Rams to a 20-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Klein: We’ve asked the question all season: When will the Cardinals revert to being the Cardinals? Through 12 games it didn’t happen. Then the Rams beat the Cardinals. OK, the Rams are a playoff team. But then the Lions beat the Cardinals, opening the door for the Rams to move into a tie for the division lead. The Cardinals still have to play Jonathan Taylor and the Colts, travel to Dallas, and play at home against the Seahawks. The Rams play at the Vikings and at the Ravens before coming home to play the 49ers and McVay’s mentor-slash-nemesis, Kyle Shanahan. The odds are in McVay’s favor, right? He can’t lose to Shanahan six times in a row. Check back with us in a few weeks. For now, Rams win the division.
Farmer: The Cardinals are not the team they were earlier in the season, and they have a tough finish against Indianapolis, at Dallas and home against Seattle. They could easily lose two of those to finish 11-6. In that scenario, if the Rams win two of their final three, they finish 12-5 and take the division. Crazy league this season, especially with the randomness of COVID, but that makes sense to me.
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