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NFL roundtable: Rams’ perplexing inconsistency makes handicapping playoffs difficult

Cooper Kupp lunges for the end zone but comes up short as he is tackled by San Francisco's Dontae Johnson.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp lunges for the end zone but comes up short as he is tackled by San Francisco 49ers defensive back Dontae Johnson during the first half of the Rams’ loss Sunday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams’ loss Sunday to San Francisco was quite costly, from guaranteeing two home games if they win in the wild-card round to dropping to the lowest division seed. Not the easiest route to the Super Bowl. Rams beat writer Gary Klein, NFL writer Sam Farmer, columnist Bill Plaschke and staff writer Mike DiGiovanna discuss their prospects in a roundtable chat:

Now that the Rams are going to play the Cardinals for a third time this season, which philosophy do you believe: It’s easier to prepare for a team you are familiar with OR you’d prefer not to play a team in the playoffs that knows you so well?

Klein: Both are valid. The Rams know the Cardinals and the Cardinals know the Rams. That eliminates the unknown. Now it’s just a matter of who plays with fewer errors and which coaching staff adjusts appropriately to whatever surprise wrinkles are thrown at them.

Farmer: I’d say that’s case by case. The Rams have to feel pretty good about playing the Cardinals, seeing as they have only lost to Arizona once in the Sean McVay era, and the Cardinals have lost four of their last five games. It’s worth noting that Arizona was much better this season on the road (8-1) than at home (3-5), so it’s probably to their benefit, at least psychologically, that they are making a trip for this one. But yes, there’s no element of surprise between these teams.

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Plaschke: I think this is the best possible first-round matchup for the Rams. They not only know Arizona’s personnel and schemes, but they dominated them in Arizona in their last meeting even though the Rams were short-handed. I think Sean McVay has figured them out, and I expect the Rams to roll.

Rams safety Jordan Fuller suffered a severe ankle injury in the regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers and will miss the playoffs.

The Rams will be favored to beat the Cardinals, who slumped after a fantastic start to the season. If you were Arizona’s coach, what would your game plan be?

DiGiovanna: I would try to establish the run, not just with running back James Conner but with designed runs for dynamic quarterback Kyler Murray, in order to control the clock and keep the Rams offense off the field. The Rams are vulnerable to a power run game — the 49ers rushed 31 times for 135 yards in Sunday’s 27-24 overtime win, much of them coming on between-the-tackle runs by Elijah Mitchell. In the pass game, the Cardinals need to do a better job of protecting Murray than they did in their 30-23 Week 14 loss to the Rams. That means chipping Rams edge rushers with tight ends and keeping running backs in to block.

Plaschke: Yes, the Cardinals need to run the ball all night, and I agree that includes Kyler Murray getting outside the pocket and moving around against the formidable Rams pass rush. The only way the Cardinals win is if they outgain the Rams on the ground.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) sets to pass against the Rams in December.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) can be difficult to pursue.
(Ralph Freso / Associated Press)

Farmer: Run, run, run ... and run some more. Make the Rams prove they can stop you on the ground, which they couldn’t the last time these teams met at SoFi Stadium. Kyler Murray caused them real problems with his run-pass option plays, and again, the Rams need to prove they can contain that. Also, the Rams have had problems lately protecting Matthew Stafford. Some of those interceptions might not have happened had Stafford been afforded an extra sliver of time with a defender bearing down on him. That should make it particularly concerning that J.J. Watt is returning to the field for this game. When he’s performing like he can, Watt is a play-wrecker.

Klein: If I were Kliff Kingsbury, I would take out that tape from the first game against the Rams in October at SoFi Stadium and have Kyler Murray watch it on loop 24/7. The Rams’ defense has changed since then — Kenny Young is gone, Von Miller is here, Sebastian Joseph-Day is injured, Greg Gaines is playing well, Donte Deayon supplanted David Long — but all of Murray’s talent was in full effect in that game.

If the higher seeds all win next week, that would mean the Rams would have to go to Green Bay for their next playoff game. Is that a scenario better for the Rams to avoid? Should they root for an upset?

Plaschke: I think the Packers are the only team in the NFC that the Rams should truly fear, so it’s a bad scenario that they would have to play them in the second round. The Packers will be rested. Lambeau Field will be rocking. It would have been much better to let the Packers play their first game against somebody else and maybe get upset or beat up a little bit.

Farmer: When the Rams are at their best, they can beat any team, at home or on the road. That includes the Packers. Problem is, the Rams too often are not at their best. But can they win at Lambeau? Yes. Would it be a mistake to start thinking that far ahead? Also yes.

Packers' Aaron Rodgers sets to throw against the Vikings in January.
Facing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay can be a daunting task.
(Aaron Gash / Associated Press)

Klein: Of course it would be better to avoid that scenario — and that’s why the loss to the 49ers was so costly. But if the Rams make a run to the Super Bowl, they’re probably going to have to play at Green Bay regardless. You could argue that the Packers might find it harder to get into rhythm after a bye week. So why not do it in the divisional round, avenge the 2020 season-ending defeat and ride that momentum into the NFC championship game? Besides, it’s not going to get any warmer at Lambeau Field.

If you were a Rams fan, what would scare you most about their team’s ability to reach the Super Bowl?

Plaschke: Two words. Matthew Stafford.

Klein: Yes, Matthew Stafford’s turnovers would be a concern. He has unquestionable arm talent and has played brilliantly at times. He made some throws against the 49ers that were ridiculously good. But he also made some ill-advised choices. The Rams got away with it against the Vikings and the Ravens, neither of which is a playoff team. The Rams also have not shown consistent ability to shut down strong opponents committed to the run.

The Rams’ inability to beat the San Francisco 49ers shows why Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay don’t have what it takes to reach the Super Bowl.

Farmer: It’s just the inconsistency of their play, particularly on offense. From snap to snap, Matthew Stafford can look like a surgeon and then haphazard and sloppy. Some of those interceptions are really hard to figure. But when he’s playing well, he’s as skillful and capable as any quarterback in the league. It isn’t by happenstance that Cooper Kupp is having a record-breaking season. There’s someone making those throws, many of which are squeezed through a mail slot of an opening.

DiGiovanna: And not just the inconsistency of Stafford, the lack of an effective run game and the kind of defensive lapses that torpedoed them Sunday. Stafford ranked second behind Tom Brady with 41 touchdown passes, but he also tied for the NFL lead with 17 interceptions. The Rams seemed to be establishing a decent run game with Sony Michel during their five-game win streak, but it disappeared Sunday. And no defense with Super Bowl aspirations should allow a team to drive 88 yards in five plays in 1 minute and 1 second for a score-tying touchdown, like the Rams did Sunday.

What makes you think the Rams could get to the Super Bowl? Or do you think they’re pretenders?

Plaschke: Their sheer talent should make them a leading Super Bowl contender. They have the smart coach, the skilled players, the postseason experience, they have it all. No excuses. Not even Matthew Stafford excuses. The Rams should go to the Super Bowl or the season has been an utter and complete failure.

First look: History lesson, current events and matchup prediction for Cardinals at Rams NFC wild-card playoff game next Monday night.

DiGiovanna: I don’t think they’re pretenders — winning 12 games in the NFL and a division title is no fluke — but I don’t see them getting to the Super Bowl. The road got so much tougher when they dropped from a No. 2 seed to a No. 4 seed with Sunday’s loss, and they’re just too inconsistent on both sides of the ball.

Klein: Despite some of the Rams’ problems, they still have proven stars, though Stafford has never won a playoff game. It won’t be easy. If the postseason plays out according to seeding, they would have to beat the Cardinals, and then defeat the Packers and the Buccaneers on the road. Don’t know if it will play out that way, but the Rams have the talent to get there.

Farmer: There’s no juggernaut in either conference. These playoffs are wide open, and when the Rams play the way they’re capable of playing, they might be the most complete team in the league. Look at the way they handled Tampa Bay this season, or their recent road wins over Arizona — despite losing four starters to COVID [protocols] — Minnesota and Baltimore. The problem is, which Rams team is going to show up?


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