Before we get too far down this path, let’s all agree that the Rams’ chances of going undefeated this season are slim at best. That’s not a knock against them; the team sits at 8-0 after a 29-27 nail-biter win over the Packers on Sunday, in which Todd Gurley racked up 195 yards from scrimmage and Aaron Donald looked unstoppable. It’s just that it’s nearly impossible for any team to go undefeated in the NFL, especially one that faces a second-half schedule like the Rams’. The emotional toll and pressure of an undefeated run, combined with the drive each opponent has to hand the team its first loss, makes it a treacherous road. There’s a reason the ’72 Dolphins get to pop champagne once a year.
But the halfway mark of the season feels like a natural point to start discussing the possibility of the Rams going 16-0. And before writing off their chances, it’s worth examining the specific reasons why this particular team can—or can’t—win out the rest of the way.
Let’s start with the marks in their favor. The margin of victory against the Packers may have been only two points, but it was yet another game in which the Rams took control during the second half. Three of their past four victories have been by three points or fewer, but in two of those wins (over the Broncos and Packers), the Rams held a double-digit lead at some point in the second half. The only win that required a fourth-quarter comeback was their Week 5 victory against Seattle. Their season-long point differential is plus-109; no other team in the league is above plus-85 (the Chiefs). This team isn’t happening upon victories.
Over the past month, the Rams have also been winning games when their play hasn’t been spotless. Todd Gurley finished with 114 yards on the ground against Green Bay, but it took 25 carries to get there. Jared Goff threw three touchdown passes, but consistent pressure from the Packers defense hurt the overall efficiency of L.A.’s passing game. The Rams continue to have issues in the secondary (which we’ll get to); it’s safe to pencil in at least one broken-coverage touchdown per game against them.
Yet even on a day when L.A. looks far from perfect, it still has enough talent to pull out wins against quality opponents. Gurley supplemented an unremarkable day on the ground with 81 receiving yards, including a spectacular catch off a tipped pass along the left sideline. Typically, much of Gurley’s pass-catching production comes on screen passes that need plenty of open field to develop, but against Green Bay, he did most of his damage running routes from all over the formation. Goff completed just 54.3 percent of his passes, but the Rams were able to gain yardage from chunk plays. Four different receivers hauled in passes of at least 20 yards. The Titans have 11 such plays on the season. (The Rams lead the league with 40.) And Sunday saw a lack of pass protection from a team that typically does an excellent job insulating its quarterback; the Rams gave up five sacks and still pulled out a win.
It also helps that the Rams boast the league’s best pass rusher. After a slow start to the season in sack production, Aaron Donald has been on an outrageous tear over his past five games. He sacked Aaron Rodgers twice Sunday, bringing his season total to 10 and putting him on pace for 20 sacks. Only seven interior players have ever finished a season with 15 or more, and only two of them—Reggie White and Robert Porcher—were full-time defensive tackles in the same way that Donald is. He is playing at an astounding level right now, and he’s good for one or two game-changing plays per outing.
The issue for the Rams is that, with the way their cornerbacks are playing, those plays are going to be necessary every week. When he was in Kansas City, Marcus Peters’s high-risk play rewarded the Chiefs with plenty of turnovers. But he’s played hurt for most of this season, and those positive plays have disappeared. He’s a liability for the Rams right now, and, with Aqib Talib still sidelined after ankle surgery, replacement cornerback Troy Hill is a concern as well. The defense has had to rely on a few scattered Donald sacks and other creative means of getting pressure because of its struggles in secondary and lack of edge-rushing talent. For all the fawning over the Rams’ unblemished start, Rodgers should have had one final drive to win Sunday’s game. If Ty Montgomery hadn’t fumbled after inexplicably bringing a kickoff out of the end zone in the fourth quarter, there’s a chance that this entire conversation would have been moot.
That’s where the real concern about the possibility for 16-0 creeps in. Beating teams like the Packers week in and week out just isn’t easy, and, unfortunately, Green Bay is a worse squad than many of the clubs the Rams will face in the second half of the season. L.A.’s next six games include matchups with the Saints (on the road), the Seahawks (with a red-hot Russell Wilson), the Chiefs (in Mexico City—oh boy, will that be fun), the Bears (in Chicago), and the Eagles (who may have found their groove by mid-December). That is a perilous stretch. You don’t even have to look past next week to talk yourself into a Rams loss. Drew Brees and Co. should have an easy time picking apart those cornerbacks, and Donald isn’t likely to have same the impact against the Saints offensive line that he does against other units. With guard Andrus Peat back in the fold, New Orleans has one of the most complete pass-blocking lines in football. Brees is also getting rid of the ball in 2.38 seconds on average, tied for the sixth-quickest time in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Even for the best team in football, this is a bad matchup in a historically tough road environment. It’s not hard to imagine the Rams offense scoring 40 points against the Saints, but it’s just as easy to see New Orleans turning the game into a shoot-out that favors whichever quarterback gets the ball last.
And therein lies the problem with going undefeated while playing a first-place schedule. Facing such a daunting regular season, Sean McVay may not even care about going undefeated. The head coach rested his starters in Week 17 a season ago, something he may decide to do again this year, and, considering the Rams lost in the first round of last season’s playoffs, his sights are almost certainly set on an extended playoff run than a flash-in-the-pan regular season.
The Rams are the NFC favorites through half a season, and by many metrics they’ve been the best team in the league. But there’s a difference between being the league’s best team and one that has a real chance of pulling off what only two teams in NFL history have done. The Rams’ road to 16-0 may not be realistic, but their road to the Super Bowl has already started coming into view.