Division titles, playoff hopes on the line as the Rams travel to the Music City
The Christmas Eve matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans features a pair of teams with playoff aspirations headed in opposite directions enterting the penultimate weekend of the NFL's regular season.
The Rams (10-4) are hitting their stride at the perfect time. Fresh off a 42-7 beatdown of the rival Seahawks in Seattle, Los Angeles now has a two-game advantage in the NFC West and are just one win away from securing a home playoff game for the first time since 2003.
It’s amazing really, to think of where this team was a season ago. Jeff Fisher was getting fired. Todd Gurley looked broken. Jared Goff looked like anything but an NFL quarterback. Insert 31-year-old head coach and apparent offensive savant Sean McVay and the Rams look like serious contenders in the NFC. Gurley is running wild again. Goff looks like a completely different quarterback. Football, you’re weird, man.
On the other hand, the Titans (8-6) look like the team they’ve been for the last decade — underwhelming. Maybe we collectively over-hyped this team coming into the season. Clearly, Marcus Mariota (above, right) isn’t developing as quickly as many hoped or expected and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie’s scheme simply doesn’t seem to match up with the third-year quarterback’s strengths. Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” brand of football has been anything but exotic, and simply mundane.
Yet, somehow, the Titans still control their own playoff destiny with two games left to play. So, which team shows up? The squad that dismantled the Jaguars and Seahawks early in the season, or the one that has dropped back-to-back games to the Cardinals and 49ers?
Los Angeles at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Los Angeles -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Todd Gurley
There’s been some talk of Gurley being an MVP candidate — and I’m totally here for it. Maybe it’s because I grew up in an era of unforgettable running backs like Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and Jerome Bettis (Heck, I wore a Rodney Hampton jersey every day for a week in first grade.) So, maybe I’m just longing for a simpler time when teams force-fed one guy 35 times a game. Or maybe, Gurley is just that good.
In the last decade, there has been only one running back to win the Associated Press NFL MVP – Adrian Peterson in 2012. Before AD (not “AP,” guys), it was LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. In ’12, Peterson became just the seventh player with more than 2,000 rushing yards in a season. In ’06, Tomlinson set the NFL single-season scoring record with 31 total touchdowns. So basically, Gurley would have to come close to setting some sort of record before even being considered.
Look, I know Gurley is a long shot to even come close to surpassing the great Tom Brady (although Carson Wentz would have been a serious contender had he not torn his ACL) and winning the award for himself — but hear me out. Gurley leads the league in touchdowns (17) and is third in the NFL in rushing yards (1,187), only 35 yards behind current leader Le’Veon Bell. Gurley also is second on his team in receptions (54, just four behind Cooper Kupp), and is the driving force behind the highest-scoring offense in the league (31.3 ppg, tied with Philadelphia).
While Gurley probably won’t dethrone Brady when the votes are counted, his 180 total yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns last week against Seattle has at least put him in the conversation. If Gurley can repeat against a Titans defense that has been stout against the run all season, it may be time to view him as a legitimate contender.
2. Tennessee’s playoff picture
Two weeks ago, despite their uninspiring play, the Titans were 8-4 and in prime position to win their first AFC South crown since 2008. Two straight losses to two bad teams later, and they are looking up in the standings at the Jaguars, who now hold a two-game lead with two to play. Despite their recent shortcomings, the Titans are still in control of their own playoff destiny, but they need help.
Luckily for Tennessee, it holds the tiebreaker against fellow 8-6 teams, Baltimore and Buffalo. But in order for the Titans to get back in the hunt for an AFC South title, they need help from the team and quarterback that beat them last week – Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers. If San Francisco can somehow beat Jacksonville at home this week, and the Titans can take care of the Rams, the Week 17 matchup in Nashville against the Jaguars will be for the division title. More importantly, Tennessee can clinch no worse than a wild-card berth with a victory over Los Angeles and losses by both the Ravens (vs. Colts on Saturday) and Bills (at Patriots).
The moral of the Titans’ story? Don’t lose two straight games to two bad teams in the most important stretch of the season
3. Rams’ front seven vs. Marcus Mariota
Finally, Mariota looked like the quarterback many hoped he would be last week against San Francisco — except his team still lost. Again.
Mariota found his rhythm against the 49ers, finishing 23-of-33 passing for 241 yards and two touchdowns, his best performance in weeks. But it wasn’t until the fourth quarter, with the his team losing, that Mariota truly looked comfortable as the Titans switched to a no-huddle offense, scoring 17 straight points to take the lead before eventually losing on a last-second field goal.
So what gives? According to wide receiver Rishard Matthews, it’s because in the no-huddle sets, Mariota is the one calling the plays, not offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie. Mariota thrived in the up-tempo, no-huddle schemes used at Oregon under Chip Kelly, where Mariota won a Heisman Trophy and led the Ducks to the national championship game. But many scouts worried that Mariota’s game didn’t transfer to the NFL level. While Mariota has undoubtedly looked shaky in his third season, that isn’t entirely all his fault. The Titans’ offense is not built around his strengths.
It seems quotes from other teammates, such as tight Delanie Walker and left tackle Taylor Lewan echo that of Matthews, that the Titans, especially Mariota, are better in a no-huddle package. But why are they just now figuring that after Week 15?
While it’s all well and good that the Titans’ offense finally seems to be in lock-step, at least in the postgame locker room media scrum, trying to implement a new offensive scheme against the Rams’ front seven, the best in football, is pretty ridiculous. Aaron Donald (11 sacks) is probably the best defensive lineman of his generation and he is surrounded by guys on the edge like Robert Quinn (8.5 sacks) that are extremely quick off the ball and versatile in pass coverage as well as pressuring the quarterback.
Last week, the Rams absolutely manhandled Seattle. Russell Wilson, the game’s most elusive quarterback, was sacked seven times and pressured 20 times on 42 drop backs.
Good luck with that whole no-huddle thing though, Titans.
It’s not just Todd Gurley or the Los Angeles defense that’s getting it done for the Rams — it’s Jared Goff, too. With the emergence of Goff (24 TDs, 7 INTs, 98.9 passer rating) as a reliable threat at quarterback, the Rams are now a complete team, arguably the most complete in the NFC. Teams can no longer simply load the box to stop Gurley and force Goff to beat them — because he probably will, especially if Sammy Watkins can ever get more than three catches a game. The Rams are simply too explosive in too many places for the Titans to handle.
Prediction: Rams 24, Titans 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.