The Los Angeles Rams have been on a roller coaster ride this season. The reigning NFC Champions have impressive wins against the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, as well as disappointing losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On Sunday night, the Rams recorded their best win of the season, when they dominated the NFC West leading Seattle Seahawks, 28-12.
On the rare chance you've been living in a cave for the last three months, and only came out a week ago and saw the Rams last two games, you would think they are every bit the same team that advanced to the Super Bowl last season.
The Rams have looked like the best team in the NFC the last two weeks. They have outscored their opponents 62-19, and have become unstoppable on both sides of the ball. Their defense, less than two weeks removed from allowing 45 points at home to Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, held another MVP candidate in Russell Wilson without an offensive touchdown for 60 minutes.
"I think that's a sign of a good team," said starting quarterback Jared Goff about how the defense has responded the last two weeks. "When bad things happen and you're able to respond that way, I think it's inevitable that you're going to face some adversity. We've responded to that. That's as bad as you can get beat on Monday Night Football at home. It's as bad as it gets and we've come back from that and shown that we do have some fight to us."
The loss to the Ravens excluded, the Rams have looked like a completely different team the last four weeks. A lot of that has to do with the coaching staff finally taking the training wheels off star running back Todd Gurley.
The Rams currently sit a single game behind the Minnesota Vikings for the second wild card spot in the NFC. It's likely they will need to win out in order to return to the postseason. The way the Rams have looked on the field recently, and their current playoff predicament makes you ask yourselves where this team was earlier in the season. Those early losses could mean the difference between another Super Bowl run and the Rams missing the playoffs completely.
The Rams began the season with three straight victories, but inexplicably sleepwalked through the first half in week 4 against the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay opened the game with three consecutive touchdowns and held a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter. That lapse in focus to start the game, may ultimately cost the Rams a playoff spot. Los Angeles rallied from 21 points down, and outscored the Bucs 40-37 the remainder of the game, but Goff fumbled on the game-tying drive with 2:37 remaining and former Ram Ndamukong Suh scooped it up and ran it back for the game-winning touchdown.
To add insult to injury, the Rams had just three days to recover from the sting of that loss before traveling to Seattle for Thursday Night Football. A back-and-forth battle with the Seahawks ended on a 44-yard missed field goal by Greg Zuerlein with 15 seconds remaining that would have given the Rams the victory. The field goal, which missed by less than a foot to the right of the upright, could also be the difference between the Rams playing in 2020 or staying home.
The seminal moment for the Rams season occurred in a week 10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gurley was going off in the first half. He was averaging nearly seven yards per carry. The defense had held the Steelers to just 17 points. In the second half, Rams head coach Sean McVay went away from Gurley. Without Brandin Cooks on the field, the Steelers double-teamed Cooper Kupp. Goff looked lost, and an injury-riddled offensive line didn't give him any time to throw. The Rams lost 17-12 in a game they could have easily won.
The following week, in a must-win game against the Chicago Bears, McVay finally took the training wheels off Gurley, and the offense has been rolling ever since. The team is 3-1 since that time, and Gurley's workload has increased from an average of 13 carries per game through the first eight weeks of the season, to 22.3 carries in the last three victories.
Gurley's receptions and targets have increased in the passing game as well. Through the first eight weeks of the season, Gurley averaged just one reception per game on two targets. In the Rams last four games, Gurley is averaging nearly three receptions per game and four targets.
"I think we've been into a rhythm," McVay said about the offense's improvement the last couple weeks. "I think when you see the two games that we've had the last couple of weeks, that's more in alignment of what we want to be. What I like is we're playing good ball lately. The last couple games all 11 are on the same page."
Los Angeles Rams Talk About Victory Over Seahawks
Los Angeles Rams players Andrew Whitworth, Clay Matthews, and Cooper Kupp discuss the team's 28-12 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday Night Football.(Published Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019)
The increased offense has also provided a much-needed boost to the defense. After Sunday's win over the Seahawks, the Rams defense improved to eighth in the NFL. The offense is allowing the defense more time to rest between drives, and the improved health of some of the key players has finally allowed the defense to trust those the players both behind and in front of them.
"We're just playing our football," said two-time reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. "I feel like the offense has been playing great, and when you're putting up points up like that it gives us the opportunity to get after the quarterback. We've been doing it and guys have been getting the quarterback down, and when you got guys you can constantly rotate with, it makes it fun, because anybody can make a big play at any time."
For the moment, the Rams appear to be back to their top form. They're hitting their stride at the right time, but will still need a lot of help in order to have a pathway to the playoffs. In order to return to the postseason, the Rams have to effectively win out. They will travel to Dallas and San Francisco the next two weeks before finishing the season at home against the Arizona Cardinals. Needless to say, it's quite the daunting task to win those next three games.
The Rams are chasing the Vikings, Packers, and Seahawks. The latter two teams have a much easier final schedule than Minnesota. The Seahawks have winnable games against the Panthers and Cardinals before finishing the season at home against the 49ers.
The Packers host the Bears and Lions in two of their final three games. That means that the Rams best path to the postseason is through the Vikings.
The Rams will first look for some help from their cross-city rivals the Chargers. Minnesota travels to Los Angeles next week for a matchup with Phillip Rivers and Keenan Allen. The following week they host the Packers in an NFC North showdown with division implications on the line. The Vikings final game of the season is at home against the Bears. By that time, Chicago may have already been eliminated from the playoffs.
If the Vikings lose to the Chargers or Packers, and the Rams can win out, they will overtake Minnesota by virtue of the tiebreaker (better NFC record) and make the playoffs. If the Rams lose one of their next three games, the Vikings would have to lose two of their final three games for L.A. to make the postseason.
There are many pathways to the playoffs for the Rams, but their best chances of success are to win their final three games. Something safety Eric Weddle believes the team can do.
"I believe we're hitting our stride at the right time," said Weddle. "We just have to build off this—we haven't done nothing yet, really. We must win the rest of the way. We have got to keep our season alive and we got to keep that energy, and that do-or-die attitude the rest of the way. That's what we've been doing the last couple weeks."