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Rams & Browns in Week 13: L.A. poised for meaningful December football | Game Preview

When they reported to OTAs in May, they weren't considered contenders.

When they broke training camp in August, few gave them playoff probability.

When they lost three in a row going into their November bye, most pundits were ready to turn out the lights on Los Angeles.

But here on the first weekend of a new month, the Rams are poised to play meaningful football in December.

After sweeping the Seahawks and the Cardinals, they've won consecutive games for the first time in 2023 to climb to 5-6.

Defying all construction timelines, this remodel is actually ahead of schedule. And next on the punch list?

A home game against a vaunted but vulnerable Cleveland Browns franchise.

Sea Fallin'

As we forecasted in this space three weeks ago, the Rams had a chance to send their division rival from Seattle into a free-fall. And when the Seahawks potential game-winning field goal sailed wide right at SoFi Stadium in Week 11, that's precisely what's occurred.

Thursday night, Pete Carroll and company took their third consecutive defeat despite a valiant showing in Dallas. The Seahawks are now 6-6, with games at San Francisco and versus Philadelphia in the next two weeks.

What that means is that the Rams can move back into Wild Card position as soon as Sunday night, with a win over the Browns combined with a Kansas City prime time win in Green Bay.

Improve Over Time

I knew the Rams were great last week against the Cardinals. I think we all felt like the season-high 37 points could have easily been 47 or more with very little changing.

But this blew my mind: According to Pro Football Reference, the Rams expected points added (EPA) on offense last week was 22.85, the highest of the Matthew Stafford era, surpassing even the high-water marks of the 2021 championship season (and the 50-burger against Denver last Christmas when he was sidelined).

The last time the offense was that productive was Week 2 of 2020 at Philadelphia. (Tyler Higbee went off that day, too. And the Eagles defensive coordinator was Jim Schwartz – he'll be on the opposing sideline this Sunday for the Browns.)

When Your Best Is Required

As with most football evaluation tools, Pro Football Focus grades are imperfect. But their informed subjectivity and specificity are their strengths, which is why they're utilized across the league.

These players all earned career-high grades in that Week 12 victory over the Cardinals: offensive guards Kevin Dotson and Steve Avila, safety Jordan Fuller, and corner Derion Kendrick.

And these players all graded out as having their best effort of 2023: corner Ahkello Witherspoon, receiver Tutu Atwell, safety John Johnson III, and left tackle Alaric Jackson.

While last week's opponent was inferior, the Rams performance – individually and collectively – was superior and should be commended.

But winter is coming…

The North Remembers

Beating Arizona is what the Rams do best, but defeating the AFC North is something L.A. has been unable to do so far.

After letting golden opportunities against the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers slip away, the Rams have two more chances against that crossover division in an eight-day span.

Before a trip to Baltimore (where the Ravens will be coming off a bye), here come the black and blue Browns.

Styles make fights, and unlike the Cardinals, Cleveland has the scheme and talent on defense to make Week 13 a slugfest at SoFi Stadium.

Air Traffic Control

A candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, we'll see if Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett is able to perform through a shoulder injury. He's two sacks away from joining Reggie White as the second player since sacks became an official statistic (1982) with three straight 15-sack seasons. Thank goodness the Rams locked in their screen game last week.

In large part because of his pressure, the Browns have been the best pass defense in the league this season.

According to NFL Research, they're on track to allow the fewest passing yards per game (142.0) since the Miami Dolphins in the strike-shortened 1982 season (114.1).

Williams Running Wild

But here's the catch. What had been a ship-shape unit is suddenly taking on water.

The Browns have surrendered their two highest rushing totals the last two weekends (172 yards on the ground versus Pittsburgh and 169 in Denver).

According to NextGen Stats, the Browns have allowed 3.6 yards after contact per carry in 2023 (NGS). That's a bunch.

Meantime, we know the Rams rushed for 228 yards in Week 12 at Arizona, the most since their 2018 playoff win over Dallas at the Coliseum.

NFC Offensive Player of the Week, running back Kyren Williams, went for more than 200 scrimmage yards. He also scored two receiving touchdowns, matching Christian McCaffrey and Raheem Mostert for the NFL lead with four multi-touchdown games this season.

He's the first running back of the McVay Era to go for at least 143 rushing yards in consecutive performances (Todd Gurley did it last in 2015).

Secret Sauce

While Williams – and I cannot stress this enough – absolutely deserves his accolades, it's his impact on those around him that makes the whole thing go.

It's not a coincidence that the offensive line dominated in Arizona, run and pass.

Nor is it accidental that head coach Sean McVay called his "best" game of the year in Glendale, with the Rams averaging 7.5 yards per play before pulling starters.

They did all that and won going away with Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua combining for only eight receptions and 45 yards (while they blocked their tails off).

The play energy of Williams and the confidence he instills matter. He brings out the best in the other 10 Rams on offense and their play-caller.

It shouldn't undermine the second-year pro one bit to point out that according to Next Gen Stats, he has averaged 2.4 yards before first contact in 2023 (highest among all backs with 100+ carries). He's also faced a light box (fewer than 7 defenders) on 79.6 percent of carries (also the highest rate). No other qualifier has faced a light box on even 60 percent of handoffs!

Credit goes to Royce Freeman for pulverizing defenses the last couple weeks, too. But Williams appears to be a bit of a skeleton key that unlocks the full potential of the Rams rushing attack.And he's absolutely going above and beyond, as this graphic illustrates.

And, also, it's fine to acknowledge that McVay and offensive line coach Ryan Wendell and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and all the receivers and tight ends who fold into the running game are giving Williams a leg up on his peers.

We leaned on our former rushing leader, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Super Bowl champion, D'Marco Farr, for a lot more insight on this week's Between the Horns.


Running the ball is great and all, but Matthew Stafford also thrived in his second game back from a thumb injury, posting season-highs in numerous categories including four touchdowns, while distributing targets to eight Rams in the passing game. He's putting himself right back in the Pro Bowl conversation.

What's so infuriating about the aforementioned losses to the Bengals and Steelers, though, is that the Rams clearly, irrefutably, had the best quarterback on the field those days. Joe Burrow was playing on one leg and Kenny Pickett ranks among the league's least productive passers.

Here comes another week against the AFC North where L.A. has a decided advantage at the most important position in sports.

Whether it's rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson in an L.A. homecoming or P.J. Walker making another spot start at SoFi Stadium, they have the two lowest passer ratings among all quarterbacks who have start multiple games in 2023, according to NFL Research.

Joe Flacco is a 38-year-old former Super Bowl MVP, sure, but he hasn't played since the 2022 finale with the Jets, was signed off his couch last week, and is 3-14 in his last 17 starts. (I'll also note that Rams offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was with Flacco in New York.)

Staffing Up

A couple statistical trends we're monitoring for Stafford.

First, his career-long streak of games with at least one interception is five. He's thrown a pick in four straight for the Rams going into this Cleveland contest (which is wild considering he's got the second lowest percentage of turnover-worth plays in the NFL behind Dak Prescott, per PFF).

Secondly, he's already tied for the longest streak of his career with six consecutive outings of fewer than 250 passing yards. Honestly, based on what we've discussed, it might be a good indicator for Sunday's outcome if that stretch goes to seven games and he just plays point guard this week like he did against the Cardinals.

Puka Shells

With his first catch against the Browns (assuming forward progress), Nacua will take sole possession of the Rams rookie record for receiving yards, breaking a tie with Eddie Kennison (924 in 1996).

If he goes for 76 receiving yards or more, he would become only the sixth player since the 1970 merger to reach 1,000 receiving yards in his first 12 career games. Minnesota's Justin Jefferson was the last to do it in his 2020 rookie campaign.

Nacua was our guest on this week's Rams Revealed and signed off on just about any of your preferred nicknames, including Puka Doncic, Pukamon, and Pukachu.

The Defense (Never) Rests

We've spilled a lot of digital ink on offense, here. Feels like we owe the Rams defense some love, after they essentially shut out the Cardinals following the opening drive touchdown.

Last week for the holiday, I wrote about how thankful Rams fans should be that coordinator Raheem Morris is still in Los Angeles.

This week, I'll point out that only the Las Vegas Raiders are spending fewer salary cap dollars on defense than the Rams, according to Spotrac, more than half of which belongs to Aaron Donald. That was by design, and it's going to set up some really unique opportunities in 2024.

But in the meantime, the L.A. defense is overachieving by leaps and bounds, ranking 21st in DVOA, 17th in EPA, and 16th in points per possession. They've only allowed more than 24 points on two occasions this season – the debacle in Dallas (in which 16 of those Cowboys points were essentially non-offensive) and Week 2 versus San Francisco, currently the top offense in football.

The Rams remaining opponents have the following offensive rankings (DVOA/EPA):

  • Cleveland (28/30)
  • Baltimore (4/8)
  • Washington (21/22)
  • New Orleans (20/20)
  • New York Giants (31/32)
  • San Francisco (1/1)

Morris and company are set up for a big closing stretch, with some opportunities to dominate, combined with two great tests of their progress.

Kick the Habit

After a big step forward versus Seattle, the win over Arizona was not without several steps back on special teams – including a missed field goal, an errant extra point, a fake punt surrendered, and a misalignment teeing up a two-point conversion.

McVay gave first-year kicker Lucas Havrisik (who notably was signed off the Cleveland practice squad last month) a vote of confidence on Monday, and it wasn't just lip service. It was interesting that the head coach noted the surface in Arizona, which is natural grass.

Havrisik has made all five of his kicks off turf (three field goals and two extra points) in Dallas and Inglewood, but has missed two field goal attempts and an extra point on natural grass in Green Bay and Glendale. Too small of a sample size, but something to monitor with road trips to Baltimore and San Francisco left on the schedule – both outdoor grass fields.

Los Angeles has the opportunity to play for some major moments this month. With the defense maturing and the offense finding its best form since the Super Bowl run, let's see if the kicking game can round into form at just the right time.

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