Third time’s the charm, right? But for who?
In the first-ever NFL game played on Martin Luther King Day, the Los Angeles Rams (12-5) will face the Arizona Cardinals (11-6) for the third time this season in the same venue where the Super Bowl will be played a month from now.
The series is split so far with the Cardinals winning the first meeting, 37-20, and the Rams getting revenge in game two, 30-23, both victories coming on the other's home field. Neither starting quarterback Kyler Murray nor Matthew Stafford has ever won a playoff game in their respective short and long careers. Of course, this is Murray’s first stab at the NFL postseason. But as for Stafford, he is 0-3 in playoff games in his days with the Lions. The first chance that Stafford had at earning a postseason W back in 2012, Murray was in seventh grade.
And get this, the last time these two franchises faced each other in the playoffs was back in 1975, a 35-23 Rams win where Lawrence McCutcheon, who is unavailable for Monday’s game, ran for 202 yards on 37 carries.
NFC Wild Card: Arizona (11-6) at Los Angeles (12-5)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 17 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Kyler Murray must stay vertical
Both teams have had their issues when it comes to pass protection and the resulting throws that come from said protection. But in this one, it will be of paramount importance for the Cardinals, especially considering the Rams were third in the NFL with 50 sacks in the regular season and Arizona's offensive line has gotten progressively worse. Despite getting good protection early in the season, things have spiraled as Kyler Murray was sacked five times against the Seahawks last Sunday. He also was taken down four times back in Week 14 when he last faced the Rams, three of those courtesy of Aaron Donald. The white-hot spotlight falls on Cards offensive left tackle D.J. Humphries, who gave up six pass pressures and one hit in pass protection going up against Von Miller and Leonard Floyd. With No. 1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins out and leading rusher James Conner questionable, much more is going to fall on Murray's shoulders. That makes it even more curious why head coach Kliff Kingsbury made it known that Murray "will play the best game of his career." Hmmm. No pressure there bub.
2. Rams' ground game needs to step up
The Rams welcomed back Cam Akers last week after he missed the entire season because of a torn Achilles suffered in the summer. He joined Sony Michel, who is third in the NFL with 554 rushing yards since Week 12. Those two did not have a big game against San Francisco last Sunday, gaining just 46 yards on 26 carries, but this week they could help set the tone for the Rams' offense. The Cardinals finished 20th in rushing defense this season, giving up 114.3 yards per game and coming off a week where they coughed up 202 on the ground to last-in-the-NFC-West Seattle. So a good running game and some clock control will be a major factor here for Los Angeles. Although it should be noted that Arizona's passing defense struggled down the stretch. After Week 9, the Cardinals were ranked second in the league at 210 passing yards per game allowed. In the last five games that average has risen to 237 yards per game. Arizona will need to tighten its coverage if it wants to get past the NFL's fifth-ranked passing attack (273.1 ypg).
3. Can new defenders make a difference?
Some interesting off-the-field moves took place in the lead-up to this game. The Rams defensive secondary lost safety and leading tackler Jordan Fuller to a season-ending ankle injury and Taylor Rapp suffered a concussion last Sunday. So earlier this week, the team signed Eric Waddle, who is 37 years young and last played for the Rams in 2019 before retiring. Yes, they went to the well of retirees to fill some needs, but hey desperate times require desperate measures. In his last full season with the Rams Weddle started all 16 games and recorded 108 tackles.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the Cardinals might (make that MIGHT) get the services of J.J. Watt. Yep, sack-master was able to practice on Thursday. How valuable would it be to get the monster D-end back for the first time since Week 7? Consider that after seven weeks of play this season the Cardinals were first in opponent QBR rating. Since then, they have been dead last, No. 32. In points per game, the Cardinals were, again, first in the NFL halfway through the season, giving up just 16.3 points per game. But since then, they have dropped down to 24th, allowing almost nine points per game more at 25.2 ppg. Aye-yaye-yaye. That’s how big of a difference Mr. Watt makes.
Bottom Line: Don’t look for a close game.
Since 2017, every Rams-Cardinals showdown has been decided by seven points or more. While at the same time, the Rams have owned this series, having won nine of the last 10 after Sean McVay took over as head coach. And as you know the Cardinals have gone just 1-4 down the stretch, getting outscored by 36 points during that span.
If you ask me, the pressure is all on the Rams here. They didn’t go out and make moves like acquiring Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller in recent months just to get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Prediction: Rams 35, Cardinals 24
— 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.