Swarming Rams defense dominates Kyler Murray and Cardinals in wild-card win
The pressure came from all angles.
Up the middle. Off the edges. From both areas at the same time.
The Rams defense did not wait to see whether the offense could avoid turnovers in an NFC wild-card playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night.
Instead, lineman Aaron Donald and linebacker Von Miller led a unit that swarmed Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, forced two turnovers and completely dominated in a 34-11 victory before 70,625 at SoFi Stadium.
The Rams intercepted two passes — one that cornerback David Long Jr. returned for a touchdown — and punter Johnny Hekker recaptured his All-Pro form and consistently pinned the Cardinals, making it easy for Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to record his first playoff victory.
“That was exactly what we wanted to be able to do,” coach Sean McVay said of his team’s complete performance.
Matthew Stafford had more riding on the Rams’ success against the Cardinals than any other player on field, but can he beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers next weekend?
Stafford connected with receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp for touchdown passes and sneaked for another as the Rams advanced to a divisional-round game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday in Tampa, Fla.
“What a team effort,” said Stafford, who completed 13 of 17 passes for 202 yards. “Our defense played outstanding… special teams set up a score with a giant play to pin them down there, did a great job on field goals, and we were good enough on offense to score some points and come away with the win.
“Just happy to be moving on.”
The Rams defeated the second-seeded Buccaneers, 34-24, on Sept. 26 at SoFi Stadium. In that rousing victory, Stafford passed for 343 yards and four touchdowns.
The trip to Tampa qualifies as a break of sorts for the Rams.
The San Francisco 49ers, by defeating the Dallas Cowboys in a wild-card game Sunday, saved the Rams from having to travel to frigid Green Bay to play the top-seeded Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the front-runner to win the NFL most valuable player award.
But it is perhaps fitting that the Rams are playing the Buccaneers, the only team to win a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
The Rams were built with a mandate to repeat that feat and play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium. Owner Stan Kroenke spared no expense on his $5-billion stadium and arguably the NFL’s most star-studded roster.
The Rams’ loss to the 49ers in the season finale dropped them from the No. 2-seeded team to No. 4.
But against the Cardinals, the Rams allayed lingering doubts about whether they are capable of making a run to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2018.
“We’re jelling at the right time,” said Miller, who set the tone early with a sack.
Despite playing without injured safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp — Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess started and Eric Weddle rotated in — the defense held the Cardinals to 183 yards. The Cardinals converted zero of their nine third downs. Along with Miller’s sack of Murray, Donald and nose tackle Greg Gaines split one, and lineman Marquise Copeland also intercepted a pass.
“Guys was just flying around making big plays when we needed to,” said Donald, who increased his sack total to 13.
Stafford, winless in three playoff games with the Detroit Lions, did not commit a turnover for the first time since a 30-23 victory over the Cardinals on Dec. 13.
The way the Rams defense was performing, Stafford had no reason to press.
The Rams forced the Cardinals to go three and out in each of their first four series, setting up Stafford’s touchdown pass to Beckham in the first quarter and Stafford’s sneak in the second.
Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Rams’ 34-11 playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals at SoFi Stadium on Monday — scoring and statistics.
Linebacker Troy Reeder helped start the rout when he hit Murray in the end zone as he threw a pass. Long intercepted the pass and returned it three yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead.
In the season finale, the Rams blew a 17-0 lead against the 49ers, ending a streak of 43 games they won after leading at halftime.
That never came close to becoming an issue against the Cardinals, who looked every bit like a team that lost four of its last five regular-season games.
A week after 49ers fans forced the Rams to go to a silent count in their home stadium, a rally-towel-waving crowd lifted the Rams.
On the first possession of the second half, Beckham’s option pass to running back Cam Akers gained 40 yards, setting up Stafford’s touchdown pass to Kupp.
Meantime, the defense continued to shut down the Cardinals.
It was far different from the first time the teams played in October, when Murray played error-free, passed for two touchdowns and tore up the Rams with his scrambling.
Despite a roster that was ravaged at the time because of a coronavirus outbreak, the Rams behind Donald solved Murray in their December win over Arizona.
Here are some of the best photos from the Rams’ 34-11 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL playoffs at SoFi Stadium on Monday night.
But the Cardinals simply are not the same team without receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in that game against the Rams.
They scored a third-quarter touchdown and got a fourth-quarter field goal, but that was it.
Murray completed 19 of 34 passes for 137 yards.
Now it’s on to face Brady.
“It’s a new year,” Donald said. “Respect what he did in the past but it’s a whole new year.”
Weddle, who came out of retirement at age 37 to join the Rams for a playoff run, said he was aiming to beat Brady for the first time.
“So let’s break that streak,” Weddle said.
Stafford is ready for the challenge.
“I’m not playing against him one on one, but he’s a great player,” Stafford said. “He’s going to get his team in the end zone, so I have to do my part as well.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.