Teams thrive when they adopt a mentality of "us against the world."
Heading into Week 16, the Los Angeles Rams don't have to fabricate that feeling. I believe it's real.
The eyes of the NFL world will be on SoFi Stadium for Thursday Night Football. I'd venture a guess that most – especially those with NFC rooting interests – will be pulling for the Saints.
Because I assure you, no part of Detroit, or Dallas, or Philadelphia (or even San Francisco should it come to that) wants to host these Rams on Wild Card weekend or beyond.
For the first time since Week 3, and for the only home date this season, the prime time spotlight shines on L.A.
The Rams appear ready for their closeup; let's see how far they've come since September and Monday Night Football in Cincinnati.
It's time for "Who Dat?" versus "Whose House?"
One down. Three to go.
The division is regrettably out of reach, but the Rams don't need any assistance to get in the postseason.
For your reference and my own, here is the Wild Card picture and each team's remaining schedule.
4. Tampa Bay (7-7): Jacksonville, New Orleans, at Carolina
5. Philadelphia (10-4): New York Giants, Arizona, at New York Giants
6. Minnesota (7-7): Detroit, at Green Bay, at Detroit
7. Rams (7-7): New Orleans, at New York Giants, at San Francisco
8. Seattle (7-7): at Tennessee, Pittsburgh, at Arizona
9. New Orleans (7-7): at Los Angeles, at Tampa Bay, Atlanta
10. Atlanta (6-8): Indianapolis, at Chicago, at New Orleans
11. Green Bay (6-8): at Carolina, at Minnesota, Chicago
The loser of Thursday Night Football is hardly eliminated from contention, but will lose control of their postseason fate.
Bring it Home
We mentioned this last week, and I'll bring it back for the SoFi Stadium finale: the Rams have a chance to clinch a winning record at home with a victory. If they do, they'll take a four-game home winning streak into 2024.
Next season, they'll have the advantage of nine home games in the regular season – including dates against the Dolphins, Bills, Packers, and Vikings – and we want that to be a real advantage. Banking another winning memory against the Saints in prime time could be a valuable steppingstone to creating that competitive edge.
If you're planning to join us at Hollywood Park, wear your royal blue to match the team's uniform selection.
They Are Who We Thought They (Would Be)
With three games to play, it's clearer than ever that the Rams are almost precisely what they projected to be in 2023: in the upper echelon of NFL offenses, competitive but incomplete on defense, and a rollercoaster on special teams.
In total, a playoff contender.
To delve into that a bit further, the Rams are third in the NFL in offensive EPA since their bye week (trailing only San Francisco and Dallas over the past five games) and second since the return of running back Kyren Williams (trailing only the 49ers over the past four games).
Defensively, they're absolutely overachieving, especially for a group that struggles to get pressure and takeaways. But there's no analytical case to be made for any better than league average on that side of the ball.
And as we know, in the kicking game, they endeavored to find new contributors at every specialist role – and really throughout their third phase. That continues to be a work in progress, though there's no disputing that they had the better of Week 14 versus the Commanders.
Living Rent Free
I took a couple surveys this week, trying to gauge the fan base on their feelings towards the Saints.
Nate Silver, I am not. But informally, the results broke down along these lines:
Roughly two-thirds of respondents don't consider the Saints a rival whatsoever, which was a touch surprising, having shared a division with the Rams for decades and appearing on their schedule more often than not since the return to Los Angeles.
Of the other third, most see the Saints as top five on the list of Rams rivals, while a handful even picked the Saints as top three.
Regardless of your stance, this certainly registers as one of the most consequential regular season games since the return to Los Angeles.
One other Saints-related item that might be of interest only to me. But these franchises very well could collide again next season, which would be the third regular season meeting in as many years.
Los Angeles is scheduled to travel to face the like-place-finisher from the NFC South in 2024.
That could mean a trip to Tampa, Atlanta, or New Orleans for now. But a Rams win on Thursday would make it more likely that the Superdome is the destination.
I've always been reluctant to use "Pro Bowler" as an honorific.
Other than "All-Pro," which is a far more exclusive recognition, it's hard to find another catch-all accolade for a professional football player.
For one glaring example of why I generally discount the Pro Bowl as a claim to fame, look no further than this week's quarterback matchup: Derek Carr is a four-time Pro Bowler; Matthew Stafford's only been honored once.
That being said, allow me to make the case for Stafford as a surefire 2023 Pro Bowler.
The only NFC quarterbacks who should even be considered ahead of Stafford this season are MVP frontrunners: Dak Prescott and Brock Purdy.
One Year Ago
With Carr returning to SoFi Stadium for a TNF game in December, how could we not look back on Baker Mayfield's stunning comeback victory on only two sleeps as a Ram?
Carr and the Raiders offense struggled that night. But he's coming off his best game as a Saint, using 10 different targets to beat the Giants, with a season-high three touchdown tosses and a passer rating of 134.8.
Rush and Cover
This is true every week, but especially on Thursday, I believe the outcome will be decided by the best combination of pass rush and pass coverage.
The Saints are suddenly getting after the passer, with 11 of their 30 sacks coming in the last two outings, including a season-best seven against the Giants.
The Rams have had alarming coverage breakdowns the last two weeks, surrendering three passing touchdowns each to the Ravens and Commanders.
Got That Dawg In Him
Before we move on from Stafford, we have to share the story of rookie tight end Davis Allen.
We learned a lot about him this week on Rams Revealed, including that he grew up in Northwest Georgia, supporting Stafford and the Bulldogs.
But never did he think he'd grow up to catch passes from the quarterback he watched on college football Saturdays. Especially because Allen, the son of a former UGA linebacker, was a middle linebacker himself and a county defensive player of the year before he accepted a scholarship to play at Clemson and try his hand at tight end.
Strengths and Weaknesses
All 7-7 teams are not created equally – and neither are NFL schedules.
Of the NFC playoff contenders (let's draw the line at the 6-8 Green Bay Packers, currently seeded 11th), the Saints have the second-weakest schedule (.418 winning percentage) and the softest strength of victory (.306).
Conversely the Rams have played the second-toughest schedule (.531, trailing only Seattle in the NFC field), and still have a trip to San Francisco ahead of them.
L.A.'s strength of victory is middle-of-the-road, which is unsurprising. We know the Rams have been great against middling teams and come up short in four tries against elite competition.
But do you know what they call franchises that "beat the opponents they are supposed to beat?"