An AFC Super Bowl hopeful does battle with the defending NFC Champs
The Baltimore Ravens, winners of six straight games, are the hottest team in the NFL as they travel west to face the Los Angeles Rams. At 8-2, they trail the New England Patriots by just one game (but hold the head-to-head tiebreaker) as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs appears within reach. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is developing into an MVP candidate whose 781 rushing yards are better than all but six running backs in the conference.
For every step forward Jackson has taken, bringing his team along with him, Rams signal-caller Jared Goff has regressed. Goff has gone back-to-back weeks without a touchdown pass, throwing three interceptions as his stumbles leave the Rams feeling the brunt of a Super Bowl hangover. A 6-4 record has Los Angeles 1.5 games out of a playoff spot and the team still has dates with the Seahawks, Cowboys, and 49ers after this. In a crowded NFC, winning five of six may be the only route to having a chance at postseason play.
It's an uphill battle that starts Monday night against a Ravens team playing at their peak. Can the Rams somehow rekindle that old Super Bowl magic in time to save a season slipping away?
Baltimore at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Monday, Nov. 25 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Is there any stopping the Ravens' offense?
Lamar Jackson is just hitting on all cylinders across the board. The last four games have produced an average of 39 points against the Seahawks, Patriots, Bengals, and Texans. Jackson has thrown eight touchdowns during that stretch, posted a perfect QB rating (158.3) against Cincinnati, and added four touchdowns on the ground. He's been borderline unstoppable as the Ravens are now the only NFL team to average more than 30 points per game.
It's a freight train of speed opposing defenses have found impossible to stop. "There's not another quarterback in the league like this," New England head coach Bill Belichick said after his Patriots were handed their first loss of the season — by 17 points. Pats defenders lamented that Jackson was the fastest guy on the field at any moment; the best you could hope for was containing him.
Jackson's marked improvement as a passer (66.3 percent completion rate vs. 61.2 last year) makes him one of those rare all-around threats. He's been sacked just twice for a total of three yards lost during the last four games; it's almost impossible to bring him down. Your best bet is to stuff the run, force some shaky throws in the air and get your secondary to make some plays against a below-average receiving corps.
That'll be tough for the Rams, whose seven interceptions are tied for 20th in the NFL. They're fifth against the run, allowing 3.31 yards per carry (second). But they've struggled against elite rushing attacks, giving up 167 yards to the Seahawks, 99 to the 49ers, and 104 yards to the winless Bengals just two weeks ago.
You know those Bengals I just mentioned? Jackson beat Cincinnati 49-13 the week after the Rams played them. Not a good sign for L.A.
2. Jared Goff's struggles
Goff's play has been perplexing for a franchise quarterback signed to a four-year, $134 million contract extension back in September. He has yet to throw more than two touchdowns in any game this season; his 10 interceptions are tied for second in the NFC behind Jameis Winston.
In his defense, the receiving corps has underachieved with the notable exception of Cooper Kupp. Brandin Cooks has struggled to stay healthy, missing the last two games with a concussion. (He's reportedly set to return Monday night). Robert Woods missed last weekend's game against the Bears with an unexpected family emergency.
The rushing offense hasn't helped as much as usual; Todd Gurley's mysterious decline (no 100-yard rushing games this season compared to five this time a year ago) has been well documented. But franchise quarterbacks raise the level of the teams around them. Goff just hasn't been able to galvanize the offense, leaving the Rams struggling to find a big play when needed. Kupp is the closest they have, but he can't throw the ball to himself these days.
3. Can the Ravens' defense keep scoring?
Last Sunday's dominant win against Houston ended a three-game streak of at least one defensive touchdown by the Ravens. But there was still plenty to hang their hat on: a season-high seven sacks, an interception of Deshaun Watson along with a fumble recovery on the first drive of the game that set the tone.
On paper, this defense isn't exceptional, especially considering the history of this team during the Ray Lewis era. They're just 13th in the AFC in sacks, rank 14th in the NFL in total yards, and 18th against the pass. But when you lead the league with five defensive touchdowns, it's clear the big play means more to the scoreboard than any extra yards allowed.
The Rams have been struggling to stay afloat in the NFC playoff race, showing limited signs of life even in last week's win over the offensively-challenged Bears.
It feels like the Ravens are in a perfect position to put them out of their misery.
Prediction: Ravens 38, Rams 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.