Good morning from Phoenix, where the Rams play their final regular season road game this afternoon. If things go their way, they won't have to board a plane again until the NFC Championship Game, or perhaps even Super Bowl week.
Let's start Morning Musings with the bye-clinching scenario.
- The Rams clinch a free pass to the divisional round with a win over the Cardinals and a Bears loss/tie. A Los Angeles tie combined with a Chicago loss would also suffice. The Bears are in San Francisco this week, where the 49ers have a chance to run their winning streak to three before coming to the Coliseum in Week 17.
- If they can finish 13-3, Los Angeles will become the first NFC team to sweep their division (6-0) since the 2011 Packers. The last time an NFC West team swept was the 2008 Cardinals who went to the Super Bowl.
- All eyes on the running back situation today, as Sean McVay and Todd Gurley have said publicly that the availability of the NFL's touchdown leader will depend on the pregame warmup. If Gurley does miss his first game due to injury since his rookie season, the game plan and the running back rotation will be interesting. Newly-acquired C.J. Anderson will likely be in for passing downs, and if he's not, do the Rams go empty with five-wide sets?
- After the Rams released Pharoh Cooper this week – subsequently claimed off waivers by the Cardinals – they'll have to decide between JoJo Natson and Blake Countess to return kicks moving forward. Despite fumbling on punt return last week, Natson could see an expanded role. However, while filling in for the injured 2017 Pro Bowler, Countess averaged 4.45 more yards per return than Cooper.
- We all know turnovers have reared their ugly head in recent weeks. The Rams have committed seven in their back-to-back losses. They had 11 turnovers in their first 12 games (11-1). Fortunately for Jared Goff today, the Cardinals rank 24th in the NFL in takeaways and only the San Francisco defense has fewer interceptions.
- Layered on top of the giveaways, there's been a sudden rash of penalties. In the last two weeks, the Rams committed 10 offensive penalties. Newly renamed State Farm Stadium can be a nuisance for opposing offenses, too. Since it opened in 2006, there have been more false start penalties accepted here than in any NFL stadium. Will be curious to see how vocal the locals are for a 3-11 home team.
- It would be nice to see the Rams get Brandin Cooks going. Since the bye, he has 13 catches for 143 yards. Cooks hasn't seen the end zone in four straight games and doesn't have a catch longer than 26 yards since Monday Night Football against Kansas City. That said, if defenses are determined to keep the lid on the Rams offense, like Chicago and Philadelphia were, Goff showed in the second half last week that he's willing to take what's underneath to sustain drives.
- Defensively for the Rams, finally a break from the R.P.O. that the Chiefs, Bears, and Eagles attacked them with in recent weeks. Arizona rookie Josh Rosen is a pure pocket passer operating the least productive offense in the NFL.
- Despite having David Johnson, the Cardinals only have two games of 100 yards rushing this season. Los Angeles has surrendered at least 98 yards of rushing offense in eight consecutive contests. If they can't stop this running game…
- Most of the struggles for Arizona stem from a depleted offensive line. They have used nine different starting combinations (the Rams have used one) and are currently deploying rookies at center, left guard, and left tackle. Last week in Atlanta, this group surrendered seven sacks.
- What if this really is Larry Fitzgerald's last home game? The feeling here in the desert is he's no better than 50/50 to play in 2019. The first ballot Hall of Famer has more receptions against the Rams (179) than any player in NFL history against a single opponent. And a cool note from Rams P.R. this week: Despite 26 years of combined NFL experience, this is only the third time that Aqib Talib and Fitzgerald have faced off.
- Blame Zane? Look, the Rams have no one but themselves to blame for losing control of the NFC one-seed. But if you did want to point a finger, look no further than Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez. As a member of the Browns in a Week 2 loss to the Saints (21-18), Gonzalez missed two field goals and two extra points. He was waived the following day.
- Final thought deals with the Rams 2019 schedule. Dallas can clinch the NFC East with a win versus Tampa Bay in the early window. If they do, or if Philadelphia loses at home to Houston today, that would complete L.A.'s road schedule for next season, as the Rams will travel to face the East champion.
Check out photos of the Rams playing the Cardinals throughout the years.