NFL roundtable: Will Rams finally beat the 49ers? Can Chargers’ Herbert outduel Carr?
Just as the NFL likes it, the Rams and Chargers go into the final week of the season with their postseason status undetermined. The Rams need a win or a Cardinals loss or they end up on that long road (literally) as an NFC wild-card team. The Chargers visit the Las Vegas Raiders, the winner an AFC wild-card team and the loser finished unless the Indianapolis Colts happen to lose to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. Then the AFC North gets involved too. Going into unchartered Week 18 territory, Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, NFL writer Sam Farmer, columnist Helene Elliott and Mike DiGiovanna discuss prospects:
Peyton Manning always says every interception has its own story. So, observation-wise, what’s your story on Matthew Stafford and his multi-interception streaks?
Klein: If we put all of these stories in a book, it would be 15 chapters … and counting. Along with his 38 touchdown passes — his most since 41 in 2011 — Stafford has had more passes intercepted than any season since 2013. Four of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns. Think I’ve cited before players and coaches who say turnovers come in bunches. But those are usually turnover-starved defensive players who need just one to get rolling. It’s amazing the Rams beat the Vikings and the Ravens with Stafford having five passes intercepted, and also losing a fumble. He deserves credit for staying poised and playing very well in important moments in those games. He was terrific down the stretch against the Ravens. But Stafford must stop committing turnovers — or the Rams’ postseason story will not be very long.
Farmer: It is befuddling, especially with how good Stafford has looked at other times. I think Greg Olsen made a really good observation on the broadcast when he said that the best quality of a quarterback is to play big in the biggest moments. That’s what we saw from Stafford on that winning drive, connecting with an array of players — Tyler Higbee, Ben Skowronek, Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. — to make the chunk plays with the game on the line. That fourth-down throw and catch to OBJ belongs on the season highlight video. So Stafford plays big in big moments.
The Rams can clinch the NFC West division and No. 2 in the NFC playoffs with a win over San Francisco, but the 49ers need a win for playoff contention.
But that doesn’t explain the interceptions. So, thanks for leaking me this question early because it gave me a chance to call [former NFL and UCLA coach] Rick Neuheisel to pick his brain. As you know, he knows the quarterback position inside and out. He brought up an interesting point. In the NFL, cannon-armed quarterbacks are encouraged to make the hero throws, toss up those 50/50 balls and let those receivers rip them down like rebounders. Detroit embraced that philosophy when Stafford was throwing to Calvin Johnson. I can think of at least two interceptions on deep throws to OBJ, and they were in the middle of the field, not on the sideline where a quarterback can use the boundary as a safeguard. Of course, other picks came on tipped balls and bad decisions, so there’s been a mix.
Stafford trusts his arm, and for good reason. He can squeeze passes into windows that other quarterbacks can’t. So he probably sees the field differently. He’s like a golfer in the woods who, instead of punching out back into the fairway, is always scanning for that hero shot he can thread through the trees. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The Rams already have clinched a playoff spot. If you were a Rams fan, what would concern you about their postseason prospects. Is there anything beyond Stafford taking care of the football?
Klein: The Rams are long past their three-game November losing streak. But the Titans, 49ers and Packers showed in those games that the Rams were vulnerable against a team willing to challenge them physically, run right at the Rams defense and control the clock. And the Titans absolutely overwhelmed the Rams’ offensive line. Have the Rams improved since? It looks that way, but no opponent has tested them the same way. The other concern would be some defensive coordinator finally figuring out a way to take Cooper Kupp out of the game.
In-season acquisitions Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller continue to show why the Rams wanted them in win over Baltimore Ravens.
Farmer: Plus, COVID is always a concern, and it’s so random the way players are suddenly sidelined. But one important aspect that needs to continue improving is the ground game, which is essential in the playoffs. Cam Akers could be huge in that regard. He’s got a Joe Mixon quality, and if the Rams can work him in as a complement to Sony Michel, they could reap huge benefits. At this time of year, if you’re a playoff-bound team that’s adding rather than subtracting, you’re in the extreme — and grateful — minority.
In what would seem to be a do-or-die game when the Chargers visit Las Vegas to play the Raiders on Sunday night, as a coach who/what would you prefer — the experience of Vegas quarterback Derek Carr or the young gun in Justin Herbert?
Elliott: I’d prefer Herbert’s arm and legs over Carr’s experience. But as with so much this season, a lot depends on which team is healthier and has the fewest key people in COVID protocol. The Chargers got a lot of people back Sunday, and that was crucial for them in beating Denver. Put ‘em all in bubble wrap and a bubble environment this week!
The Chargers were able to beat the Raiders with a strong running attack during their first meeting, and they’ll need that again to become playoff team.
Klein: Experience counts but I’d take Herbert. That’s probably a reflection of watching him more this season than Carr.
Farmer: I’d take Justin Herbert, even though Derek Carr has had a couple of great seasons. Herbert is incredibly poised and can make throws that most quarterbacks can’t.
DiGiovanna: Unless that “experienced” quarterback is Tom Brady, I’ll take the “young gun” almost every time. Look at what Patrick Mahomes did in his second and third seasons as the starter in Kansas City, leading the Chiefs to a Super Bowl win in 2019 and a Super Bowl loss in 2020. Experience wasn’t so much a factor in those playoff runs as Mahomes’ dynamic passing and scrambling ability. In two decades of covering the Angels under manager Mike Scioscia, he often said he preferred talent over experience. It’s why reliever Francisco Rodriguez was given the chance to star in the team’s 2002 World Series run despite being 20 years old and with two weeks of big-league experience. K-Rod’s talent ruled, just as Justin Herbert’s talent should give him the edge over Carr’s experience in Sunday night’s game.
Miller: I’m in the group that thinks Carr is better than a lot of people give him credit for. But I’d take Herbert in this matchup too. He hasn’t played as many NFL games as Carr has, but Herbert’s experience in prime time has been super impressive. He has averaged 284 yards passing, with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in five career prime-time games. That’s experience enough for me.
Knowing this is silly talk for now because this is only Herbert’s second season, but what great quarterback comes to mind when you see him play? How about John Elway?
Klein: Remember when Herbert got that buzz cut in 2020? I don’t know about his play on the field, but he reminded me of Johnny Unitas without the classic flat top.
Takeaways from Chargers vs. Broncos: Andre Roberts has made many key returns since he was added to the roster, and ran 101 yards to score against Denver.
Elliott: Rather than compare him to anyone or declare him the second Elway, why not let him be the first Justin Herbert? His development has been fascinating to watch. How much better can he be? I’m curious to see that.
Miller: This is a Sam Farmer question, since he knows more about the NFL than I do about pretty much anything. I’ve heard the Elway comparisons, so that one must make sense. The one thing I do know: With the way Herbert has started his career, it won’t be long before people are comparing others to him.
Farmer: If there’s a modern-day quarterback who reminds me of Elway it’s Patrick Mahomes, right down to that barrel chest and on-his-toes strut. Herbert’s just bigger and is so pure with his throwing motion, he reminds me a little of Carson Palmer. But I would point to a contemporary when making a Herbert comparison. He and Josh Allen are very similar, although Herbert is further along than Allen was in his second season.
First thoughts on Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders.
Klein: The traffic coming home from Vegas is going to be even tougher than usual.
Farmer: It’s tough to beat a team twice in a season, so that comes to mind, as the Chargers handled the Raiders at SoFi. Austin Ekeler had a good game in that 28-14 win, and the Raiders have to be concerned about him.
The NFL has added Saturday games to its final week, with Chiefs-Broncos and Cowboys-Eagles moved up a day. Season closes with Chargers and Raiders facing off.
Miller: I’m surprised the Chargers are field-goal favorites. Sure, they beat the Raiders by two touchdowns in Week 4, but that was so long ago that Jon Gruden was still Las Vegas’ coach. The Raiders have won three in a row — by two, four and three points. So they’ve been playing under tight conditions for a while now. They also are in a place no one thought they’d be at so many points this season when it would have been reasonable for them to completely unravel. These guys are survivors, and I’m sure they’re playing with more than a bit of belief.
The 49ers have beaten the Rams five in a row, last losing in December 2018 in L.A. Will it become six?
Klein: Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay’s friend and mentor, also has become McVay’s nemesis. The odds have to be in McVay’s favor, right? If the Rams win Sunday, McVay will be thrilled to have won the NFC West title. And relieved to finally beat Shanahan again.
Farmer: I think the Rams are going to snap that slide, especially if Trey Lance is playing quarterback for the 49ers. There’s too much on the line for the Rams to gag at home.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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