Since there are only five weeks of the NFL regular season left this desert showdown on "Monday Night Football" between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals could definitely be put into the “big game” category. The Rams come into this one at 8-4, two games behind the NFC West-leading Cardinals, who are 10-2.
The Rams finally put that awful November behind them with last Sunday’s 37-7 drubbing of Jacksonville. But over the course of the previous month they went 0-3, moving to the cusp of even dropping out of the wild-card chase. For all of November, the Rams were leading in games for just six minutes and 25 seconds. But last week was their redemption and they hope, a turning point.
Meanwhile the Cardinals became the first 10-win team in the 2021 season after last week’s 33-22 win at Chicago. Kyler Murray made his return from injury and threw just 15 passes as the running game did a good bit of the heavy lifting. Well, to be fair, the ineptness of the Bears was the most helpful asset.
Monday Night Football: Los Angeles (8-4) at Arizona (10-2)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 13 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Cardinals -2
Three Things to Watch
1. A little more Murray this time
The Cardinals' quarterback missed three games due to injury and saw Colt McCoy ably lead the team to a 2-1 record. Well Murray was a game-time decision to play at Chicago, but he came through in solid form, going 11-of-15 for 123 yards and two touchdowns, good for a QB rating of 136.9. Arizona will need him to step up more this week as he’ll be staring at the menacing scowl of Aaron Donald across the line from him. While it was good to have DeAndre Hopkins back last week as well, look for Murray to target tight end Zach Ertz a tad more. In the six games since they acquired him from Philadelphia, Ertz has 23 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns. Besides, Hopkins will have a tough draw going up against Jalen Ramsey, so that should put the target on Ertz even more.
2. Line vs. line, mano-a-mano
While Hopkins vs. Ramsey and also Cooper Kupp vs. Byron Murphy on the flip side will be great WR vs. CB battles, the most telling matchup of the game will actually be the Rams' offensive line going up against the Cardinals' pass rush. With that brigade in front of him Matthew Stafford has been sacked just 18 times this year, good for third in the NFL (he was only hit twice in that win vs. Jacksonville). But the Cardinals will counter with a pass rush that is fourth in the NFL with 32 sacks and 11th in quarterback hits. So they have a knack of figuring out where the weak link is and exploiting it. Stafford has shown a knack for making some terrible decisions at times this year (everyone remembers the twisty-turvy, throw-a-pick-from-your-own-end-zone bonehead play from a few weeks ago, right?) but if he is given time and looks comfortable in the pocket, it’ll be a huge advantage in this one.
3. Make the Cardinals go the length of the field
BREAKING: Andy Dalton isn’t going to be out there handing out free interceptions to the Cardinals again.
In last week’s 33-22 win at Soldier Field, the Bears QB threw four interceptions, all of them setting the Cardinals up inside the Chicago 30-yard line. Short field, easy money. The Cards put up 23 points off those four picks. The Rams have to make sure to move the ball and get good special teams play to at least make Murray go the length of the field for touchdowns and field goals.
In the first meeting between these teams Murray and the Cardinals beat the Rams with some amount of ease, 37-20, inside SoFi Stadium. In that game the Cardinals ran for 216 yards on 40 carries to help carve up that Ram defense. And while we’re mentioning the ground game it should be noted that Rams running back Sony Michel ran 24 times for 121 yards and a touchdown vs. the Jags last week. So even though the air will be filled with footballs, the running game of both teams will also be a big indicator of who wins here.
Stafford was great last week because, well… he was playing the Jaguars. Everybody looks good against them. I like Murray’s knack for stepping up in the big games a little bit better.
Prediction: Cardinals 30, Rams 23
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.