A trip to the NFC title game will be on the line this Saturday, as the Los Angeles Rams head north to face the top-seeded Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round. It's a matchup with no shortage of intrigue, pitting the NFL's top-scoring offense against the No. 1 scoring defense in the league. It also features a pair of head coaches who are very familiar with one another, with the Packers' Matt LaFleur serving as offensive coordinator under Sean McVay during his first year as head coach of the Rams. McVay and LeFleur also worked together as offensive assistants for four years on Washington's staff. And now they will face off for the first time ever as opposing head coaches.
Following a 10-6 regular-season campaign, McVay and his No. 6-seeded Rams pulled off an impressive upset on the road in the Wild Card Round against NFC West rival and No. 3 seed Seattle last Saturday to advance. The Rams sacked Russell Wilson five times and limited the Seahawks' star quarterback to just 174 passing yards (142 net after accounting for sacks) and a season-low 40.7 completion rate in the 30-20 victory. Now the stakes get higher and the matchup more difficult, as McVay brings his vaunted defense to Green Bay to face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' high-octane offense. Can the Rams play the role of playoff spoiler for the second week in a row to advance to the NFC title game?
Matt LeFleur's Packers earned the luxury of bypassing the Wild Card Round and hosting Saturday's NFC Divisional Round game by virtue of securing the best record in the NFC during the regular season at 13-3. The well-rested Packers also make their playoff debut riding the momentum of a six-game win streak that culminated in a 35-16 pasting of archrival Chicago in Week 17. Green Bay will look to advance to the NFC Championship Game for the second year in a row, but it won't come easy.
Saturday's game will mark the 96th meeting all-time between the Rams and Packers. The Rams won the most recent encounter in 2018, 29-27 in Los Angeles, to take a slight 47-46-2 lead in the all-time series. However, these teams have met just twice in the postseason (1967 and 2002), splitting those contests.
NFC Divisional Round: Los Angeles at Green Bay
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 16 at 4:35 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Davante Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey
There was not a better quarterback/wide receiver combination in the NFL this season than Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. Rodgers, the front-runner to win NFL MVP honors, completed a league-best 70.7 percent of his passes for 4,299 yards, led the league with 48 touchdown passes, and threw just five interceptions en route to an NFL-best 121.5 passer rating. On the receiving end of many of Rodgers' passes was Adams, who set new single-season franchise records with 115 receptions and 18 touchdowns, while racking up 1,374 receiving yards despite playing in less than 14 full games.
The dynamic duo has gone largely unchallenged this season, carving up opposing secondaries with ease. But that could change on Saturday as the Packers' high-powered passing attack will be put to the ultimate test against the NFL's top-ranked pass defense (190.7 ypg) and the league's premier lockdown cornerback in Jalen Ramsey. Adams will likely be shadowed by Ramsey in this pairing of first-team All-Pros in what could be the best one-on-one matchup of the season.
Rodgers had an unbelievable 136.0 passer rating this season when targeting Adams, arguably the best route-runner in the NFL. Meanwhile, Ramsey limited opposing quarterbacks to a dismal 73.0 passer rating when throwing his way and played a big role in the Rams allowing an NFL-low 17 touchdown passes this season, giving up just one himself. According to Pro Football Focus, Ramsey allowed 0.53 yards per coverage snap to rank first in the NFL among qualifying cornerbacks. And with the exception of Week 1 against the Cowboys' Amari Cooper, Ramsey also dominated every high-profile receiver he faced this season (and there were many), giving up 25 yards or less in all but four contests. In the five games in which he was paired against star wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and DK Metcalf this season, Ramsey allowed an average of just 1.8 receptions and 18.4 receiving yards per game.
In the event that Ramsey is somehow able to tame Adams on Saturday, the good news is that Rodgers still has a solid supporting cast to help pick up the slack. Wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard combined to haul in 66 passes for 1,141 yards and nine touchdowns, while tight end Robert Tonyan and running back Aaron Jones combined for 99 receptions, 941 yards, and 13 touchdowns. The bad news is that the Rams' stingy pass defense may have an answer for those guys in the form of standout cornerbacks Darious Williams and Troy Hill to go along with safeties Jordan Fuller and John Johnson III. Something will have to give in this strength vs. strength matchup. And the pairing of Adams vs. Ramsey will undoubtedly go a long way in deciding which side comes out on top.
2. The battle in the trenches
An exceptional Rams' secondary isn't the only thing that Rodgers and Co. have to worry about on Saturday. The Packers will also have to contend with two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who was once again dominant this season, racking up 13.5 sacks (second-most in the NFL). The All-Pro defensive tackle added two sacks last week in the win against the Seahawks before exiting prematurely with a rib injury. Donald is expected to play on Saturday, but he could be limited to some degree. And he will definitely have to play through some pain in the bitter cold of Green Bay.
Donald isn't the only player in the Rams' front seven that can wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Standout edge rusher Leonard Floyd had two sacks of his own last week against Seattle and compiled 10.5 sacks during the regular season for a Rams defense that generated the second-most sacks in the NFL (53). That should make for quite the pairing against a Green Bay offensive line that surrendered the second-fewest sacks in the league with 21. But with first-team All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari on injured reserve with a torn ACL, the Packers will be more vulnerable than usual up front.
Billy Turner filled in for Bakhtiari in the season finale against Chicago, and the drop-off was quite noticeable. As a result, Green Bay brought in Jared Veldheer this week to help fill the void. Veldheer started at left tackle for the Colts last week in their playoff game against Buffalo before being relegated to the practice squad and ultimately becoming a free agent. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be as Veldheer landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday, preventing him from becoming the first player ever to suit up for two different NFL teams in the same postseason. Right tackle Rick Wagner (knee) is still a little beat up as well. Regardless, the Packers still have All-Pro center Corey Linsley and Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins to hold down the interior.
It will be very interesting to see how the Green Bay offensive line can hold up against Donald, Floyd, and a daunting pass rush on Saturday. It also will be interesting to see how Los Angeles' offensive line, which allowed just 25 sacks, can hold up against a Green Bay pass rush that produced 41 sacks during the regular season. The key matchup to watch there will be Rams two-time All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth paired against second-team All-Pro Za'Darius Smith (12.5 sacks this season).
3. The run game looms large
Both teams rely heavily on the play-action pass, and the only way to truly make that a successful endeavor is with a strong run game. That is particularly true for the Rams, who led the league with 189 play-action pass attempts. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles passing game wasn't exactly hitting on all cylinders down the stretch. On Saturday, Jared Goff will get the start at quarterback with his surgically-repaired thumb as John Wolford has been ruled out because of the neck injury he suffered against Seattle. Blake Bortles will serve as Goff's backup. Cooper Kupp (knee) is banged up as well so moving the football through the air could be challenging against the Packers' seventh-ranked pass defense (221.7 ypg). That might just leave most of the heavy lifting on offense to the run game. More specifically, rookie running back Cam Akers, who racked up 131 rushing yards and a touchdown last week against a Seattle run defense that was ranked in the top five in the league. If Akers can keep that momentum rolling against a Green Bay run defense that ranked 13th in the NFL during the regular season (113 ypg), it will go a long way in helping an otherwise lackluster Los Angeles offense.
Under the circumstances, Rodgers and the Packers' passing attack will need all the help it can get from the run game as well. That effort will be spearheaded by running back Jones, who rushed for 1,104 yards and nine touchdowns this season, averaging an impressive 5.5 yards per carry. It will be crucial for Jones to get things going on the ground to keep the Rams off-balance and help set up the play-action pass for Rodgers. The problem is that moving the football on the ground could be a real challenge against a Los Angeles run defense that is almost as good at stopping teams on the ground as through the air. The Rams allowed just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry in the regular season to rank third in the league. Seattle did find some running room (156 yards, 5.4 ypc) last week, but that was in part due to the fact that the passing game (142 net yards) was not working.
The Rams match up very well against Green Bay defensively in what may be the toughest test that the Packers' offense has faced all season. However, it will be a very tall order for Los Angeles to completely shut down Green Bay's high-powered attack. And Rodgers and Co. will find a way to put points on the scoreboard, albeit falling short of their league-leading 31.8 points per game season average. The Rams' offense, on the other hand, will have a difficult time keeping up on the scoreboard without a healthy option at quarterback. The Green Bay defense isn't as potent as the Rams', but the Packers are solid on that side of the football, ranking ninth in the NFL this season in total defense. Green Bay also has home-field advantage in a game that is expected to see temperatures in the high 20s, not exactly what the boys from sunny Los Angeles are accustomed to. The Rams' defense will keep it interesting, but they don't have the firepower on offense to come away with the upset. Green Bay comes out on top in a close one to advance to the NFC title game for the second year in a row.
Prediction: Packers 24, Rams 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.