The NFL schedule makers didn't intend it, but there's a cruel taunt to sending Los Angeles to open at Carolina.
With the Rams coming off a Super Bowl defeat, the Panthers serve as a poignant reminder of the challenging odds facing the reigning NFC Champions.
The Panthers went 15-1 in 2015, and Cam Newton was the MVP. However, they lost Super Bowl 50, and haven't won a playoff game since, losing in the wild-card round of 2017 in their only subsequent appearance. Carolina has won 6, 11, and 7 regular season games in the three campaigns since that Super Bowl defeat.
If you missed the first half of our Week One preview, check it out here. The second installment features notes on the division, the head coach, and the Rams offense.
The Rams depart from LAX to Charlotte, North Carolina where they'll face the Carolina Panthers in game one of the 2019 regular season!
First Things First
When they kick off Week One, the Rams will have been in sole possession of first place in the NFC West for 672 consecutive days and have held at least a share of the top spot for 728.
Said another way, head coach Sean McVay has not spent a week in second place in the division.
Could the Rams possibly go wire-to-wire again?
The rest of Sunday's NFC West schedule has San Francisco opening in Tampa Bay, while Seattle hosts Cincinnati and the Cardinals welcome the Lions.
McVay Chasing History
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only George Seifert (28) and Steve Mariucci (25) have more regular-season wins than McVay (24) in their first two years as an NFL head coach.
12 more victories this season would match Jim Harbaugh for second all-time after three years. And if McVay were to go 13-3 again, he would have more wins through his first three campaigns than any head coach who didn't inherit Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott.
But why not go for Seifert's mark? 14-2 to tie; 15-1 to break; 16-0 to smash it.
What Will 3.0 Look Like?
The Rams have been practicing away from prying eyes since finishing joint practices with the Raiders on August 8. We and the Panthers can only guess what new wrinkles will be on display exactly one month later on September 8 in Charlotte.
I'm just as in the dark as everyone else, but here are a few bold predictions:
- We'll see less two-back and two-tight end formations than the experts have forecast. 11-personnel is still the identity of this offense.
- If I was an opposing coordinator, I'd be more concerned about Josh Reynolds jogging onto the field in a four-receiver grouping. That might pose more problems than 12-or-21-personnel. Reynolds' length and hands can be leveraged in the red zone, with more on that area of the field to follow.
- The Rams will bring rookie Darrell Henderson Jr. along slowly. His snap counts and touches should increase as the year goes on, but this will remain Todd Gurley's backfield for now, with Malcolm Brown next in line.
- The Rams will throw it more. The Rams finished 14th in the NFL in passing attempts last season and 24th in 2017. I strongly suspect they'll be Top 10 this season in the third year of the McVay-Goff alliance. (Unless, of course, they're blowing opponents out as they have routinely the past two years.)
- As Goff increasingly takes the keys, the Rams will move even faster on offense. Getting that initial first down to start a drive should allow them to shift into top gear this season. After all, no-huddle is the way to go.
- Finally, not only will play-action remain a staple of the Rams offense, I'm predicting they'll take it to new extremes in 2019.
Goff for MVP
And while we're in prediction mode, I like JG16 to win MVP, and this is why.
Cooper Helps the Cause
When he went down in Week 10, per PFF, Cooper Kupp had already bettered his receiving grade, catch rate, yards per reception and average yards after the catch from his rookie year.
Without him, Goff's completion percentage fell from 71 to 61, and his yards per attempt dipped from 9.3 to 7.2, according to ESPN.
I know many of us wonder how 2018 would have ended with a healthy Kupp. Let's hope we find out in 2019.
Put it in the Paint
No team had more red zone opportunities in 2018 than the Rams. Unfortunately, they ranked 19th in converting those chances into touchdowns.
Could some of that be attributed to conservative game management and playing with the lead more often than not? Sure. Especially when there's a Rolex package designed to keep Todd Gurley out of the end zone.
But the Rams were 17th in 2017 converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns, meaning they've scored more points than any NFL team since McVay was hired… despite being a below-average team when it comes to finishing drives.
You can see that glass as half-empty or half-full. Either way, it remains the offense's biggest area for growth.
Matchup to Watch
The oldest offensive lineman in the NFL will be opposite the youngest member of the Panthers roster this weekend.
Andrew Whitworth's first task of his 14th season will be first round edge rusher Brian Burns, 21-years old and one of PFF's highest-graded rookies this preseason.
Carolina desperately needed to improve its pass rush, having registered the sixth-fewest sacks in the NFL last season (35), only to see Julius Peppers retire. So they went all in on Burns with the 16th overall selection after seeing him lead college football in pressures.
Burns reportedly had to bulk up to get to 250 pounds before the Combine. His personal
"Welcome to the NFL Moment" weighs 330 and will be wearing No. 77 this weekend.
Time to Lower the Boom
The Rams placed a very calculated bet on center Brian Allen and guard/tackle Joe Noteboom this offseason, placing their Draft and free agency priorities elsewhere. Their time is now, and these redshirt freshmen will debut against the likes of three-technique Gerald McCoy and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly on Sunday. It would be incorrect to say it all hinges on Allen and Noteboom in 2019. However, no two Rams will be under a greater microscope in September.