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Rams & Commanders battle in the first of two crucial, late-season games at SoFi Stadium | Game Preview

Moral victories won't do it any longer; only dubs will suffice for the Los Angeles Rams.

As the Washington Commanders and the New Orleans Saints come marching in, the Rams are playing their best football of the season.

The playoffs are within reach, but only if they handle their business. By the end of Thursday, we'll know whether this stretch run has legs.

The final two home games of the 2023 schedule land in a span of five days at SoFi Stadium, and they both must be wins.

Baltimore Bounce Back

You could feel how much it hurt the players and coaches to not pay off that effort in Baltimore with a victory.

And because of how close they came to beating a historically efficient team, it's easy to forget – that wasn't the game they needed to win. In fact, it was the least important of the Rams final five games.

Don't misunderstand – I sorely wanted it for them. And it would have been a tremendous boon to their playoff chances. To be one play away from any win only to see it slip away is an opportunity lost.

But it was also the last remaining game against an AFC opponent. The final four are all NFC games. And in the event of a tiebreaker, conference record could be critical. Minnesota is 6-3 against the NFC, while the Rams are 4-4.

There's a lot of work to be done.

Quoth the Raven

But just because the Rams have to put Baltimore behind them, making sure they don't let the Ravens beat them twice, doesn't mean that loss can't serve a critical purpose.

It dented L.A.'s chances of getting in the dance, sure.

But if the Rams do play beyond Week 18? Look out. Because after that performance in those conditions, you think Sean McVay and Aaron Donald and Matthew Stafford would be unnerved by having to go to Dallas, Detroit, or Philadelphia this January?


San Francisco's a different animal for another conversation, but I even believe the way that Ravens game played out could help the Rams in the finale at Santa Clara, too.

Joy in the Journey

If you're a frequent reader in this space, you can probably tell that I relish this time of year – to me, it's even more compelling than the postseason.

The playoffs are cut-and-dry: a bracket of the best teams, win or go home.

But in December, the full array of games still factors into the equation. Just look at the last two weeks of Monday Night Football – who had the Bears beating the Vikings in Minneapolis and the Giants taking out the Packers in the Meadowlands?

Just like Tommy DeVito, Bengals backup quarterback Jake Browning is more than just a fun story. He has become one of the most critical pieces to the Rams puzzle!

Minnesota (7-6) goes to Cincinnati on Saturday night, and they're also turning to a new quarterback in Nick Mullens, for a game with mammoth ramifications.

Then on Sunday, in a showdown of 6-7 teams, Tampa Bay travels to Green Bay. Technically, either outcome is acceptable for the Rams, but Baker Mayfield and the Bucs prevailing would be better by a factor of about 14 percentage points of playoff odds.

The Eagles have lost control of the NFC East and are suddenly a bit desperate heading to Seattle (6-7), where they'll look to silence the 12s and finish what the Rams started a month ago.

As for the Giants and Saints (6-7) in Week 15? I would invite them to play to an overtime draw.

Hot or Not

Fresh off dicing two of the best defenses in the league, Stafford and the Rams get to attack the most porous defense in the NFL this Sunday.

The Commanders have already fired their coordinator; they traded away their best pass rushers at the deadline; they just put linebacker and former first-round selection Jamin Davis on injured reserve.

The Commanders have the worst scoring, total, and pass defense in the NFL; they've allowed 30-plus points eight times this season (most in NFL by a lot); their last two opponents have scored 45 apiece.

It can't be this straightforward, can it? Sundays never are.

"You don't really control who you play, you just control how you play," Stafford said in anticipation of Washington. "That's the big thing for us is let's go out there and play our best game of football that we've put on tape this year."

He and the Rams have scored 104 points since Thanksgiving.

I made the case this week on Between the Horns that I am enjoying this version of Stafford as much if not more than the one from two years ago that put a banner in the rafters.

D'Robbed by the Ravens

Before last weekend, the Ravens had trailed by a combined total of 45 minutes in their first 12 contests.

The Rams held the lead for over 30 minutes of regulation in Baltimore, including those precious seconds after what could have been – should have been— a Demarcus Robinson game-winner deep in the fourth quarter.

The 29-year old was our guest on Rams Revealed, and I encourage everyone to spend some time with someone who's played with two MVPs in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, who's played for likely Hall of Fame coaches in Andy Reid and John Harbaugh.

His thoughts on Stafford and McVay are worth a listen.

Allen Wrench

It will be great to have Tyler Higbee back this week against the Commanders. But it sure looks like the Rams found their next great pass-catching tight end in Davis Allen.

And yes, that's another rookie from the Class of 2023 with undeniable starting potential.

His run blocking needs refining. Pass protection's been adequate so far. But discovering a fresh red zone weapon this deep in the calendar? That is no small find.

Next to quarterback, tight end could be the toughest position for first-year pros to make an impact. Yet the moment wasn't too big for Allen in Baltimore, not even during a rainy gotta-have-it drive with Stafford changing plays at the line of scrimmage to rip a seam ball to him for 21 yards.


While this Sunday figures to get pass-happy, we can't forget to give Kyren Williams the digital ink he deserves.

We've written recently about how his success is a reflection of the Rams entire offensive operation – from scheme to play-calling to quarterbacking to offensive line play to receivers competing without the ball.

Nonetheless, when the ground game is humming at levels last seen at the peak of Todd Gurley's prowess, that's a great sign for L.A.'s chances. He goes into Sunday's contest 10 yards shy of 1,000 from scrimmage despite his lost time due to injury.

Howell At the Moon

In the other direction this weekend, the Rams defense will be tested by one of the more prolific – if not efficient – passers in the league.

Sam Howell has gone from 19 passing attempts as a fifth-round rookie in 2022 to leading the NFL in attempts in 2023 and on pace for 4,000 yards.

The Commanders have run it less often than any franchise, but beware of the quarterback's rushing ability, especially after what Lamar Jackson did last week to this L.A. defense. Howell has rushed for a score in three straight games (all losses) for Washington.

"He's a baller," Sean McVay said of Howell on Wednesday. "This guy's got the ability to create."

Capitol(ize) or Capital(ize)?

But here's a chance for the Rams to capitalize and rack up some stats defensively.

With 58 sacks taken in 2023, Howell is vying for the NFL single-season record (76 by Houston's David Carr in 2002).

Aaron Donald and company are here to help.

Howell's also surrendered a league-high 14 interceptions, four of which have been returned for touchdowns, including one in each of Washington's last three games.

The Rams have safeties in back-to-back outings, which is great, but have yet to score a non-offensive touchdown and continue to rank at the bottom tier of the league in terms of takeaways.

You Say Good Bye

So what do the Commanders have going for them as they visit SoFi Stadium for the first time?

Extra rest. Just like the Steelers, Cowboys, and Ravens before them, the Commanders had an open date to prepare for L.A.

That's right, for the fourth time this year, the Rams will play an opponent coming off a bye week.

It's extremely unfair. A huge competitive disadvantage. And I really, really hope the league makes it up to the Rams by making them do it a fifth time before the end of the season.

{Record scratch… He said, what?!}

You know, I was just thinking it would be nice to upset the two-seed on Wild Card weekend, then hit the road again to challenge the NFC's top-seed, coming off their playoff bye.

Who's with me?

Special Treatment

One factor keeping Rams fans up at night is the kicking game. And now, they're replacing a long-snapper.

We've been on this for weeks, and part of the volatility is by design. It's what the organization signed up for while searching for their kicker and punter and long-snapper of the future, all on rookie deals.

What happened in Baltimore was unfortunate but not unfathomable, giving up a 76-yard punt return touchdown in overtime. And it could have been worse, quite honestly, with two muffed punts being mercifully recovered by the Rams.

To say special teams aren't getting it done isn't just stating the obvious. It isn't specific enough to narrow our focus. Let's drill down another level to see where the most costly breakdowns are occurring.

Using Aaron Schatz's DVOA, which does a remarkable job at measuring efficiency in all verticals of team performance, here's where the Rams rank going into Week 15. (Quick crash course: DVOA is a percentage, so a special teams score of -8.3 means the Rams have been 8.3 percent below NFL average on the season. You can see that number in parentheses.)

  • Placekicking – 31st (-10.4)
  • Kickoff – 26th (-2.7)
  • Kick Return – 22nd (-1.1)
  • Punt – 32nd (-15.3)
  • Punt Return – 29th (-4.2)

To spell that out, the kickoff game has been mostly inconsequential. Not great, but not overly impactful.

Punt return has been a drag on results, but modestly so.

The place-kicking game has been dismal, as evidenced by the Rams being on their third kicker of the year, and even signing a fourth to the practice squad last week in Mason Crosby, who has since been released. Despite all sorts of adverse conditions in Baltimore, Lucas Havrisik had his best day in Royal and Sol, and perhaps that can be the start of something special.

As for punt cover, this is the most detrimental phase of the Rams operation, has been since the preseason, and it came to bear last Sunday.

All that may have been intuitive to invested followers of the Rams, but hopefully it highlights the pain points the team must solve for most urgently to see this late-season surge to fruition.

Take a look through photos of the Los Angeles Rams getting ready for Sunday's game against the Washington Commanders.

Home Sweet Home

The Rams are 3-3 at home, with these next two to go.

In addition to the immense playoff implications for this season, it's hard to overstate the longer-term value of finishing strong at SoFi Stadium. If the Rams want a more steady home field advantage, it's important to reward you, the fans, who spend your time and resources with rewarding memories and the team's best performances.

It works in the reverse order, too. The more you pour into Sunday afternoon and Thursday night, the better competitive chances this team will have. Hope to see you there, if you're able to join us.