The Los Angeles Rams (3-4) return home to the Coliseum for the first time since Week 5 for a cross-divisional matchup against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers. The Rams opened the season on a sour note with an embarrassing 28-0 shutout loss to the 49ers. They would go on to win their next three games.
Unfortunately, that success would be short lived as Los Angeles has now lost each of its last three contests, falling to third place in the NFC West. Their latest defeat came in Week 7 in a 17-10 loss to the Giants in London. Fresh off of a bye week, Jeff Fisher’s Rams must now turn their attention to the Panthers in desperate need of a win to help resurrect a once promising season.
The Carolina (2-5) finally seemed to find a little footing last Sunday in an impressive 30-20 victory over the Cardinals. It was the Panthers’ first win since knocking off the 49ers in Week 2. Ron Rivera’s team will now attempt to go 3-0 on the season against NFC West opponents, as they make their first-ever trip to Los Angeles to take on a well-rested Rams team. A win would provide Carolina with its first winning streak of the season and get the Panthers one step closer to climbing their way out of the NFC South basement.
Carolina at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 6 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Carolina -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Todd Gurley vs. Carolina Run Defense
After posting elite numbers and winning NFL Rookie of the Year honors in 2015, it's fair to say that Gurley is in the midst of the dreaded sophomore slump. So far in 2016, Gurley is averaging just 57 rushing yards per game and has scored just three touchdowns. In fairness, Gurley’s sub-par numbers through the first seven games are hardly his fault. A poor complementary passing game has allowed opposing defenses to key in on the Rams’ prized running back, and a leaky offensive line has provided very little running room.
Gurley will try to overcome a poor supporting cast in an effort to finally get his season on track. It won’t be easy with an unfavorable matchup against the No. 3-ranked run defense in the NFL lying in wait. The Panthers are giving up just 80 rushing yards per game. Carolina held elite Cardinals running back David Johnson to a season-low 24 yards on 10 carries just last week. Johnson had rushed for no less than 111 yards in three consecutive games prior to facing the Panthers. Gurley has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game all season. So, while Gurley may break out of his slump at some point this season, it probably isn’t going to happen today.
2. Carolina’s Ground Game vs. Los Angeles’ Run Defense
A Panthers running game that looked fairly pedestrian early in the season is starting to hit on all cylinders. Carolina enters this game fifth in NFL in rushing at 124 yards per game, which is important considering how this offense favors the run. One of the biggest factors in the resurgence has been the return of No. 1 running back Jonathan Stewart. Since returning after missing three games because of a hamstring injury, Stewart has rushed for 180 yards and four touchdowns in the last two contests.
Stewart and the Panthers will look to keep things going on the ground this afternoon in Los Angeles. The Rams are 15th in the league against the run, giving up 104 rushing yards per game. The statistics aren’t as impressive when you analyze how Los Angeles has done against some of the most productive rushing offenses. San Francisco (4th in NFL) ran for 150 yards in Week 1, while Buffalo (second) racked up 193 yards on the ground against the Rams in Week 5. Los Angeles could have its hands full against another top-five rushing offense.
3. Case Keenum’s Last Chance?
It's only a matter of time before Los Angeles head coach Jeff Fisher turns the quarterback job over to No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff. Keenum threw four interceptions in his last game, a Week 7 loss to the Giants. He now has more picks (10) than touchdown passes (eight) on the season. Fisher continues to tout Keenum as the starter for the foreseeable future. However, Goff recently started getting practice reps with the Rams’ first-team offense, a clear sign that Keenum is on a very short leash.
The good news is that Keenum will get to keep his job for at least one more week. Even better, today’s matchup against a generous Carolina pass defense appears promising. The Panthers sit near the bottom of the rankings (No. 29) in passing defense, allowing 287 yards per game. An inexperienced Carolina secondary has been victimized over and over, to the tune of 16 touchdown passes allowed in seven games. Consider that Carolina yielded just 21 all of last season. Keenum will need to be wary of a pass rush that came to life in a big way last week against Arizona, sacking Carson Palmer eight times.
While Keenum’s days as the Rams’ starting quarterback are clearly numbered, a strong performance today at home would likely buy him some time. But a poor performance could result in Goff making his debut in Week 10.
While the Panthers have yet to return to championship form, they seem to be making some serious strides towards getting back to winning football. The Carolina rushing attack is looking better by the week. A pass rush that was nowhere to be found early in the season seems to have found new life as well. That said, this Panthers team still has some glaring issues. Cam Newton, who spends as much time arguing with officials over questionable hits as he does making big plays these days, has yet to return to MVP form. The offensive line struggles at times in pass protection. And a young secondary has taking its share of lumps.
Fortunately, Carolina has the opportunity to continue its turnaround against a Los Angeles team that has lost three straight games and has plenty of its own issues. The Rams can’t get anything going on offense, even with Todd Gurley around to carry the load. Case Keenum has been inefficient and somewhat turnover-prone, while a capable defense has woefully underperformed at various points.
Los Angeles should be rejuvenated coming off of a bye. The Rams also have enough playmakers to keep things interesting at home. Regardless, the Panthers finally seem to be tapping into their potential. Carolina keeps the momentum rolling on the road with its third win of the season against an NFC West opponent.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Rams 20
Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.