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NFL roundtable: Rams have shot to win NFC West. Is there a vaccine to fix Chargers?

The  Rams' Brandon Powell flips into the end zone to complete his 61-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Vikings.
The Rams’ Brandon Powell flips into the end zone to complete his 61-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Vikings on Sunday.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

The Rams are in first place in the NFC West and would earn a home playoff game if they win their final two games. The Chargers, meanwhile, allegedly needed to worry about closing the season with two AFC West games but lost to the lowly Houston Texans to impair their playoff hopes.

With two weeks to go in this first 17-game season, Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller and Los Angeles Times NFL writer Sam Farmer discuss the teams’ prospects in a roundtable talk moderated by NFL editor Athan Atsales:

Had you heard of Brandon Powell before he started returning kicks for the Rams? Does he seem to have that “it factor” as a returner, or was this just a product of good blocking in the game against Minnesota?

Klein: I had not heard of Brandon Powell until the Rams signed him. And frankly, when he returned the opening kickoff against Jacksonville 65 yards, I was among a lot of people exclaiming, “Who is that guy?” Powell made sure we all know who he is now. He benefited from good blocking on his 61-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Vikings. I don’t know if he has the “it factor,” but players always talk about good plays coming in bunches, whether it’s sacks, turnovers, big runs, explosive plays. There’s no reason to think Powell can’t gain momentum from his big performance and continue to be a force.

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Miller: I would have guessed that “Brandon Powell” was the name of an NBA player. I started seeing tweets about him Sunday and figured the Lakers had lost another guy to COVID.

Rams coach Sean McVay said that running back Cam Akers, who returned to practice last week after recovering from an Achilles injury, might play Sunday.

Farmer: Didn’t know Brandon Powell before this, but he had a kick big return against Jacksonville and then made that huge play against Minnesota. The Rams needed that, because to this point they had basically conceded punt returns as impact plays. They are all about fair catches. They haven’t really had a threat back there since Pharoh Cooper, so Powell was quite a find. Sort of the way they found Matt Gay on the scrap heap last season, and now he’s a Pro Bowl kicker.

Do you have any thoughts on why Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford seems to be streaky as far as having passes intercepted?

Farmer: As Peyton Manning says, every interception has a story of its own. You can look at Stafford’s three yesterday — hit as he was throwing the deep ball, one off a deflection, one when Anthony Barr popped up and made a great play — but there’s no question the Rams quarterback had a lousy day. Stafford’s picks seem to come in bunches. The Rams can take solace in the fact they stepped up in other areas and were still able to score 30 at Minnesota, no small accomplishment.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws a pass during the first half against the Minnesota Vikings.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) had three of his passes intercepted by the Vikings, but not all of them were his fault.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

Klein: It looked like Stafford put his November troubles behind when the Rams won three games in a row. But they resurfaced against the Vikings, and fortunately for the Rams, Powell and the defense saved them. Stafford acknowledged some poor decisions. And some plays might be out of a quarterback’s control. Hey, that sounds a lot like Sean McVay, who is quick to point that out whenever he’s asked about Stafford’s turnovers. Stafford has passed for 36 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. Fun fact: In 2018, when the Rams went to the Super Bowl, Jared Goff passed for 28 touchdowns with 12 interceptions through 15 games.

This might seem like a flimsy question, but after the Chargers’ disaster in Houston — now what? Chargers fans would like to believe their team was simply short-handed, but the 4-11 Texans were missing 16 players. Are the Chargers out of gas?

Klein: Don’t know if they’re out of gas, but that was a bad loss against a bad team. The only upside: David Culley seems like a great guy who got a raw deal in his first season as coach of the Texans. So, it was good to see he still has his team playing hard for him.

Farmer: That was pretty stunning. The Texans put up 41 points against them, and — other than a season sweep of the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars — Houston hasn’t come close to scoring that on anybody this season. Weird things happen in the NFL, especially this season. But good teams win the games they’re absolutely supposed to win, and the Chargers didn’t do that.

Chris Harris Jr., Nasir Adderley and Alohi Gilman are among players to the COVID-19 list, but the Chargers return three players, including Austin Ekeler.

Miller: What this is all about now is: Who’s going to be available? Assessing the next two weeks for the Chargers is difficult not knowing who will be playing in those next two weeks. I don’t think COVID is done with this team. Let’s see how much of their varsity is on the field Sunday against Denver.

The Chargers were no longer last in the NFL against the run, although close, but longtime veteran Rex Burkhead of Houston — hardly a feared back — running for a career-high 149 yards has to be disheartening to a team hoping to make the playoffs. Playoff teams traditionally are able to run and stop the run. Have the Chargers been exposed as not really being good enough to be a playoff team?

Miller: Miami was exposed as awful at 1-7 remember? Can’t make sweeping judgments about teams in this league, even based on decent-size sample sizes. The Chargers’ defense against the run was improving over the course of the season, but Sunday was a major step back. In this scheme, individual mess-ups can become full-system failures. That’s what we saw in Houston.

Klein: They haven’t been consistently good enough. But with Justin Herbert and others, they still have the talent to win their next two games. Remember, all they must do is get into the playoffs. And then, as Athan says citing his beloved Eagles’ Super Bowl run, it’s all about matchups.

Texans running back Rex Burkhead (28) celebrates a touchdown run against the Chargers.
(Eric Christian Smith / Associated Press)

Farmer: It’s one thing to buckle to Kansas City. It’s quite another to be shredded by Davis Mills and Rex Burkhead. The Chargers had guys missing on defense, yes, but they need players to be able to fill in and pick up the slack. The Chargers are ranked 31st in points allowed — how does that happen with the defensive-minded Brandon Staley at the helm? Do the personnel not fit the scheme? There are lots of stories and theories behind statistics, and those numbers can be deceptive, but that’s a head-scratcher.

Since matchups are everything in the NFL, considering the Chargers’ status what is most concerning about facing the Denver Broncos next?

Klein: See that? Athan and matchups. And we’re not even to the playoffs yet!

Farmer: Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley, a former Broncos assistant, know each other well. Denver tends to play the Chargers tough, and now the Chargers’ secondary is hugely COVID-depleted. Whether the Broncos are able to take advantage of that is a different story. They’ve had all sorts of quarterback problems.

Miller: I’ve covered this team for four seasons, and, based on my personal experience, I’d expect that the Broncos have been annual Super Bowl contenders. The Chargers always seem to struggle against Denver, regardless of who’s at QB for either team or the records or pretty much anything else. I 100% anticipate this game being another angst fest.

The Ravens should be getting quarterback Lamar Jackson back on a playoff-minded team desperate for a victory. What are your thoughts on that cross-country trek and matchup for the Rams?

Injuries and issues with COVID-19 couldn’t stop the offensive line from playing an oversized role for the Rams in their 30-23 win over the Vikings.

Farmer: When these teams met at the Coliseum in 2019, the Ravens humiliated the Rams 45-6, with Jackson throwing for five touchdowns and running for 95 yards. But Jackson was in the midst of a very different season — he was MVP that year — and those were different Ravens. Sean McVay’s teams tend to be very good and prepared in these 10 a.m. body-clock games.

Klein: Well, during their postgame handshake, Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn’t appear too pleased with Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who had Joe Burrow throw late passes on his way to a record-setting 500-yard performance during a Bengals rout. So it will be interesting to watch as McVay and Stafford do all they can to win and help Cooper Kupp chase records. Yup, the last time the Rams saw Lamar Jackson, in 2019, he torched them for five touchdowns and ran for 95 yards. The trip will be tough on the Rams, but they’ve demonstrated resilience. With a division title within reach, they don’t want a letdown before playing the 49ers, who have defeated them five times in a row.


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