Playoff hopes on the line when the Cardinals and Rams clash out in LA
"Loser Leaves Town Sunday" is potentially on tap for the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Both teams are fighting for their playoff lives and one is staring down the barrel of the end to the season with a loss on Sunday.
The inability to stop the run ended up costing the Cardinals (8-7) dearly last Sunday in a crushing 20-12 loss to San Francisco. Arizona surrendered 227 rushing yards on 30 carries as they went from the driver's seat for the final wild-card berth to currently sitting on the outside looking in. The Cardinals were too way too flat energy-wise, which falls on head coach Kliff Kingsbury and his staff. To make matters worse, Kyler Murray suffered a lower-leg injury on his last pass attempt of the game, but he has stated that he will be playing on Sunday.
Los Angeles (9-6) blew its chance to lock down control of the NFC West and instead watched Seattle celebrate another division title following a 20-9 win over the Rams last Sunday. Los Angeles also lost quarterback Jared Goff for this game after he broke his thumb on a pass attempt in the second half against the Seahawks. Goff didn't have a great game (24-for-43, 234 yds., INT), but now the Rams have to turn to backup John Wolford, who has never seen an NFL snap.
Los Angeles is better positioned for a playoff spot entering this game as the Rams can secure a wild-card berth with a win or a Chicago loss to Green Bay. Even if the Bears fall to the Packers, Arizona needs a win or a tie against Los Angeles to crash the postseason party. The Rams won the first meeting between these two teams, beating the Cardinals 38-28 in Week 13 behind 351 passing yards from Goff.
Arizona at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan.3 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -1
Three Things to Watch
1. What to expect from John Wolford and Los Angeles' offense?
Even though Jared Goff has been struggling lately, his injury means that Wolford will become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in his team's last game with a chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN. An undrafted rookie out of Wake Forest, Wolford was with the Jets in 2018 before moving on to Arizona Hotshots of the short-lived Alliance of American Football (AAF) the following year. He has been with the Rams the past two years but has never taken a snap in a regular-season game.
On top of Goff, the Rams also will be without running back Darrell Henderson Jr. because of an injury, and wide receiver Cooper Kupp was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week as well. Cam Akers, the rookie running back who has emerged over the past month or so, missed last week's game because of a high ankle sprain but head coach Sean McVay said on Friday that he would be a game-time decision to face the Cardinals. Los Angeles' offense struggled enough last week against Seattle, managing just three field goals, going 9-for-19 on third down, and hitting on no pass play of longer than 26 yards, and now figures to be even more shorthanded at the skill positions, not to mention starting a rookie quarterback, in every sense of the word.
This presents a golden opportunity for Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and his unit to take advantage. Pressure will be a key and the Rams gave up three sacks and nine quarterback hits last week against the Seahawks. Haason Reddick, third in the NFL in sacks with 12.5, will no doubt try and leave his mark on this game. But the Cardinals also must do a better job against the run after giving up 7.6 yards per carry to the 49ers last week. Los Angeles is down two running backs, but Jeff Wilson Jr. (183 yards) did most of the damage for San Francisco by himself so Arizona knows it can't relax simply because the Rams' backfield is not at full strength.
2. Can the Cardinals generate a running game?
Moving the football consistently down the field against the Rams will be easier said than done as Arizona only generated 232 yards of total offense in the first game between these teams. Kyler Murray's mobility has been a huge part of the Cardinals' success this season as the team has been at its best when he's making things happen with his legs, but will the injury he suffered last week impact him on Sunday? Kenyan Drake is capable of carrying the load but he was not used that much (10 carries) or that effective (49 yards) in the first game against Los Angeles. Knowing that the Rams are shorthanded on offense, Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury would be wise to try and stick with the running game in an effort to wear down the defense or at least slow down an aggressive pass rush. Drake and Chase Edmonds could play an even bigger role than usual in the running game if Murray is limited in any way.
3. Will the Rams' defense seize the day and win the game?
Los Angeles' defense knows fully well what is happening with the offense. But it's not like this unit isn't capable of carrying this team in the first place. Behind first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, the Rams are No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (286.5 ypg) and third in scoring defense (19.3 ppg). Dominating the line of scrimmage has been key for Los Angeles and this defense is third against the run (94.1 ypg) and second in sacks (49).
In the first meeting with Arizona in Week 13, the Rams limited Murray to 173 passing yards (on 21-of-39 passing) and just 15 rushing on five attempts. He tossed three touchdown passes but committed two turnovers, was sacked twice, and hit several other times. Los Angeles is rock-solid up front with perennial All-Pro Aaron Donald anchoring the line and also in the secondary where shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey has been making life miserable on opponents' No. 1 wide receivers all season. In their first encounter, Ramsey held DeAndre Hopkins, second in the league in receptions (111) and third in yards (1,372), to 52 yards and a touchdown on eight catches (out of 13 targets). Murray will no doubt look to Hopkins plenty on Sunday, but other targets must step up or it could be a long day on offense for the Cardinals.
Taking care of the football is going to be ultra-important this week as you have to believe that both head coaches are going to try to win the game with defense and special teams. Field position will be another storyline to watch as punters Andy Lee and Johnny Hekker could end up becoming big-time weapons in this game if they can pin both offenses deep inside the 20-yard line on a regular basis. Given the circumstances on offense for both teams, this game may not feature many points. But when all is said and done, the Rams will narrowly escape against the Cardinals thanks to an inspired effort from their defense.
Prediction: Rams 20, Cardinals 13
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Parler @Scottwhittum.