When stars align in the sky, it’s said to be a sign of good fortune. Perhaps it’s no surprise that on Monday night, when the Rams’ stars put together arguably their most complete performance of the season, they looked the part of a legitimate contender.
Los Angeles thoroughly defeated the Cardinals, 34-11, to advance to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs and a matchup against the defending champion Buccaneers. The Rams’ stars shined on the biggest stage of the season. And while it’s not a complete affirmation for the franchise’s aggressive team-building strategy, it was an undeniably strong proof of concept.
“I thought our guys did a good job playing a complete game,” coach Sean McVay said. “That’s what we wanted to be able to do coming in here.”
For as complex as football is, it can sometimes be boiled down to simply having better players than your opponent. The Rams boast more star power than just about any other NFL team, and the Cardinals didn’t have any answers for limiting it on Monday.
L.A.’s offseason and midseason acquisitions contributed in major ways. On offense, it started with quarterback Matthew Stafford, who entered Monday’s contest having turned the ball over nine times in his past four games. In his Rams playoff debut, he completed 13 of 17 passes for 202 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, picking up his first career postseason victory.
“I think it means a lot more to you guys and all that,” Stafford joked when asked about finally getting a playoff win. “I just want to be a part of this team and help us win. I trust in myself, trust in my abilities, trust in my teammates.”
Those teammates had a strong night—especially some of the fresher faces. Tailback Sony Michel had 58 yards on the ground, including a 35-yard carry. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. hauled in four catches for 54 yards and an impressive touchdown snag. He also completed a 40-yard throw to running back Cam Akers, who was competing in his second NFL game since tearing his Achilles in the offseason.
“He should’ve led me a little bit,” Akers said behind a smile. “It was a good play we drew up in practice and it came to light.”
“Odell is just a super-talented guy,” Stafford added. “He made that throw right-handed, he could probably do it lefty, too.”
For as much as the Rams dominated offensively, their defense was just as impressive. Midseason acquisition Von Miller led the way, tallying a sack and a game-high three tackles for loss. The Rams defense kept Kyler Murray and the Arizona offense in check all evening, forcing four straight three-and-outs (resulting in minus-4 total yards) to open the game. The fifth possession ended on third down when linebacker Troy Reeder nearly sacked Murray in the end zone for a safety, but the quarterback flipped the ball away and had it picked off by corner David Long Jr., who returned it for a score.
The turnover—followed by another Murray pick on the ensuing drive—essentially clinched the result. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’s unit completely stifled the league’s 11th-highest scoring offense. Arizona went 0-for-9 on third down and averaged only 3.4 yards per play.
“Of course, the objective was to keep Kyler contained,” Miller said. “It sounds simple, but it’s really tough to do. Kyler’s a hell of a player, man.”
This is what the Rams are capable of. When all of their stars are collectively playing complementary football, L.A. can overwhelm opponents. But the Rams won’t have it as easy in the next round as they did against the Cardinals, who were without top receiver DeAndre Hopkins and reliant on a less-than-100-percent Murray and an inexperienced head coach.
The Bucs stand in the way of the Rams’ quest. L.A. defeated Tampa Bay earlier this season at home. That matchup featured a handful of players who won’t be present in Sunday’s divisional-round matchup. The Rams won’t have receivers DeSean Jackson (who scored on a 75-yard catch) and Robert Woods, linebacker Kenny Young, or safety Jordan Fuller. They’ve introduced Beckham, Miller, Akers, and even Eric Weddle into the fold. Meanwhile, the Bucs won’t have receiver Chris Godwin and could be without right tackle Tristan Wirfs. (Antonio Brown and Richard Sherman didn’t play in Week 3.) Tampa Bay will have cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting this time around, but there’s concern over the availability of running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II.
“I think they’re different from when we played them last,” Stafford said. “I think we are, too—both in personnel, scheme a little bit, as you evolve throughout the season. It’ll be interesting to see how they look as of late.”
It’s a gamble to build a football team that is so reliant on its stars—the depth chart can appear stunning, but the results aren’t always impressive, as the Cardinals, who spent their offseason adding older stars beyond their primes, harshly found out on Monday. The Rams experienced growing pains themselves, but continue to hope their maneuvering will result in a return to SoFi Stadium in a few weeks and capturing a Super Bowl at home.
“I think we’re just jelling at the right time,” Miller said. “We were doing the same thing since I got here. And it just feels like it’s working. Offense is playing well, special teams is playing well, and the defense is feeding off of it.”