It's been a topsy-turvy season in the NFC West, especially for the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals as they enter a crucial early-season matchup on Sunday.
These two teams found a little bit of redemption last Sunday with bounce-back victories that righted the ship after some disappointing opening losses.
For the first time in the Sean McVay era, the Rams went into a game with a losing record (0-1) after the season-opening 31-10 loss to the Bills. But they rebounded with a 31-27 win over Atlanta to even the ledger. The Cardinals were waxed 44-21 by the Chiefs in Week 1 but came back with a scintillating 29-23 overtime win over Las Vegas last week.
To contrast the two wins, the Rams blew a big 31-10 lead with under 10 minutes to play and had to hang on for dear life until a Jalen Ramsey interception at the goal line with under a minute to play. Meanwhile, the Cardinals looked dead in the water down 20-0 at halftime but completely flipped the game in the second half, before a mind-boggling finish in regulation (If you haven’t seen it, YouTube it. It's worth it.) and then winning it in overtime on a fumble return.
The last time these two occidental opponents were opposite each other, the Rams were laying the wood to the Cardinals in a 34-11 rout marking Matthew Stafford's first-ever NFL playoff win last January.
Los Angeles (1-1) vs. Arizona (1-1)
Three Things To Watch
1. Who protects their franchise QB better?
Kyler Murray has been less-than-stellar in his seven career games vs. the Rams, sporting a 42.5 QBR (he has a 64.0 QBR vs. the rest of the NFL) and a 1-6 record. The O-line gave up three sacks and a ton of pocket breakdowns vs. Kansas City, but as you know, Murray likes to improvise more than just about any quarterback in the League. Hell, look at the insane ending of regulation in that Raider game for proof.
The Horned Ones showed much better line play in Week 2, compared to Week 1. In the season-opening loss, the Bills sacked Stafford seven times. Last week, the Falcons sacked him just once. However, he has still been troubled by interceptions, tossing five in his first two games. But on the flip side, I’m sure you saw the stat they showed during the Falcons game last week that Stafford is a perfect 14-for-14 for 121 yards, a TD, and no interceptions in the first two drives of their two games.
2. The supporting cast
DeAndre Hopkins is still going to be sitting out due to suspension, and the Rams showed hints that they don’t necessarily need to lean so heavily on Cooper Kupp, having zero targets to him until the last three minutes of the first half last week. The tight ends played big parts in each team’s win with Zach Ertz leading the Cards with 11 targets, eight catches, and 75 yards. For the Rams, Tyler Higbee had nine targets, seven catches, and 71 yards. The Rams coaches also talked about getting slot receiver Allen Robinson II more involved in the game plan and gathered four catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. On the other side, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has been targeted 11 times in two games with eight catches so far. But the Cardinals will need him to take a step up for their receiving corps until Hopkins comes back. And against the Chiefs, Greg Dortch had a career-high seven catches for 63 yards.
3. The third-down struggle bus
Obviously, every third down is huge in any game. Not setting any headlines records there. But these two teams have some real struggles in getting their defenses off the field. In fact, these two rank dead last in third-down conversions on the defensive side. The Cardinals have allowed their opponents to convert 11 of 19 times (57.9 percent) and the Rams have relented 12 of 20 (60 percent) times to rank 31st and 32nd, respectively. On the offensive side, the Cardinals' offense is just 6-of-25 on third down, good for dead last. By contrast, the Rams are the fifth-best offense on third down, converting 12 of 23. Whichever team can sustain their drives and keep their defense fresh has a huge advantage here. This might be one of those games where time of possession actually means something.
There is a weird dynamic at work here that cannot be ignored. The Cardinals have been outscored 43-7 in the first half this season. Meanwhile, the Rams have been outscored 45-10 in the second half of their two games. So obviously, a huge key will be the Cardinals hitting the alarm clock early and making the first half competitive, as well as the Rams showing some stamina and making better second-half adjustments.
Oh, and let me throw one more odd stat at ya’. The Cards have now lost six straight home games, dating back to their last win at State Farm Stadium on Oct. 24, 2021, a 31-5 win over the Houston Texans. One of those losses was the Rams taking down the Cardinals in Glendale last December, 30-23. Look for something similar to that here.
Prediction: Rams 30, Cardinals 21
*Price as of publication.