Since the Rams' return to Los Angeles, there have been two consequential clashes with the Baltimore Ravens. And perhaps there's another on the horizon this weekend.
First, in 2019, Lamar Jackson posted a career-high 99.8 QBR in his lone start against L.A., orchestrating a 45-6 win at the Coliseum, the equivalent of his "Heisman Moment" in what proved to be an MVP season.
Then, in 2021, the Rams spun No Win November into Undefeated December, plus that crucial fifth consecutive win to ring in the new year.
On that January 2, 2022, in Baltimore, the Rams didn't take their first lead until the final minute of the fourth quarter, and even then it required a spectacular fourth down conversion from Matthew Stafford to Odell Beckham, Jr. immediately followed by the game-winning touchdown featuring the same duo.
My recollection of that day is that it cemented the foundation on which the subsequent Super Bowl run was built. You simply cannot tell the story of the Rams championship campaign without a chapter (at least) devoted to that comeback.
Now, with the Ravens chasing the AFC's top seed and the Rams in the NFC playoff hunt, Sunday has similar potential to be an inflection point for either franchise.
Climb to Contention
Sunday, the Rams will be out to win a fourth straight game for the first time since… that five-game streak culminating in the aforementioned win over Baltimore deep in the 2021 season.
Regardless of where it goes from here, I've seen enough to believe the Rams were right to bet on themselves in 2023 – to retool on the fly rather than tearing it down and rebuilding. There seem to be so many lasting benefits to this climb back to contention since the bye. And the performances during this streak validate that the decision-makers were correct in seeing the playoff potential in this group.
Whether or not they can get there remains to be seen. But I want to be on the record in appreciation of the thought process now rather than getting caught up in the results yet to come.
These next three games are going to be rapid-fire, with two home dates in five days on the backside of this road trip. Those contests against the Commanders and Saints are very likely to be your last two chances to see the Rams in person at SoFi Stadium (but prove me wrong, Rams!).
It will be Christmas and Week 17 before we know it.
The closing stretch sets up like a Super Bowl sandwich – and you know I'm a carb lover because I'm focused on how good the bread is.
The Ravens and 49ers are clearly capable of winning it all, and each could wind up as top seeds come January.
In between are three games in which the Rams are likely to be favored.
3-2 would leave the Rams with a winning record with a very high probability of making the postseason. 4-1 would effectively clinch a playoff berth. 5-0, and there's no keeping L.A. out.
This is how we broke it down on Between the Horns.
In The Bleak December
Not to go all Edgar Allan Poe on you, here, but there's a significant storm in the forecast for Sunday.
Here's hoping… "Tis the wind and nothing more!"
I found it interesting that this week Sean McVay conceded the Rams were not as prepared as they could have been for cold, slick conditions in Green Bay last month and will adjust accordingly for Baltimore.
I wonder if the anticipated rain and wind didn't also play into the Rams thinking with respect to adding Mason Crosby to the practice squad, with the expectation that he'll debut in Baltimore – a natural grass, outdoor surface.
I think there's good data to support Lucas Havrisik's case as a pro. The height and length of his attempts have been enticing. He simply has more work to do to refine his talent. It's telling the Rams aren't giving him the boot, right?
Nonetheless, I'm encouraged to see the Rams make a move like this to stabilize the position as the stakes get higher and the conditions could deteriorate (Baltimore, New York, San Francisco all have outdoor stadiums).
Meantime, for the first time in seven seasons, Justin Tucker is no longer the most accurate kicker in the NFL record books. Jamison Hensley of ESPN reports that Tucker missed from 44 in Week 12 against the Chargers to fall to 89.9 percent career, allowing Atlanta's Younghoe Koo (90.1%) to supplant him.
Tucker's still a five-time first-team All-Pro for the Ravens and owns the longest make in league history (from 66 yards last year). His five missed field goals in 2023 are his most through 12 games since 2015, but it's important to note that four of those misses have come from 53 yards or longer.
Rain or Shine
No matter the weather, these Ravens are for real, as evidenced by the following from NFL Research.
They lead the league in scoring defense. And since Week 6, they have the second-best scoring offense, too.
They've trailed for 45 minutes and 37 seconds total, by far the least amount of time in the NFL in 2023.
22 rushing touchdowns are tied with the Dolphins for most in the NFL and are two shy of matching the Ravens franchise record; they've scored at least one rushing touchdown in six straight and in 11 of 12 games this season; they're No. 1 in average starting field position…
You get the point.
All due respect to the Ravens Super Bowl MVP for taking down the 49ers in February of 2013, but no one is mistaking Lamar Jackson for 38-year-old Joe Flacco.
Jackson could very well be the best opposing quarterback the Rams face this season. And for whatever reason, he destroys NFC competition.
Jackson is 18-1 in his career against the opposing conference, and his only loss came in 2022 at the New York Giants.
On this week's Rams Revealed, defensive tackle Bobby Brown III had a strong take about Jackson ranking among the NFL's elite.
According to Next Gen Stats, Jackson leads the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (7-0) and passer rating (137.4) on intermediate throws in 2023 (measured as targets between 10 and 19 air yards).
What's more concerning? Defensively, the Rams have allowed a 110.3 passer rating on intermediate passes (fourth-worst in NFL). So that shapes up as a mismatch to monitor.
Of note, though, Baltimore's All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews is on injured reserve. And he was a dominant intermediate target for Jackson and the Ravens, particularly in the red zone.
Something's Got to Give
The Ravens have scored 20-plus points in seven straight games, tied for the longest active streak in the league with the Dallas Cowboys.
Conversely, the Rams have held four consecutive opponents to 20 or fewer.
First Things First
What's even more stunning about the above is that opponents have scored first-possession touchdowns in every game of this Rams winning streak. The Seahawks, Cardinals, and Browns all marched at least nine plays and 75 yards to paydirt using their offensive script.
To underscore that point, L.A. has allowed a total of five touchdowns since their bye week – three of them have come on opening drives! (A fourth was in blowout time at Arizona after the Rams had pulled starters.)
That led me to check the rest of the schedule, and as it turns out, the Rams have allowed six touchdowns and two field goals on their opponents' first drives.
Surely, that's a trend we'll all be focused on reversing come Sunday.
Buy Myself Flowers
There's also a nice clash between rookie receivers this weekend.
Zay Flowers needs 229 receiving yards to pass Torrey Smith (841 in 2011) for the most by a Ravens rookie (Flowers has already reset the franchise rookie record for receptions).
Only Puka Nacua (77) has more receptions among rookie pass-catchers. And to eclipse Jaylen Waddle's rookie record of 104 grabs set in 2021, Nacua needs to average 5.4 per game the rest of the way.
Shout out to my old friend Mark Simon from Sports Info Solutions for sharing this tidbit about how Matthew Stafford's been finding renewed success downfield in 2023.
On throws 20-plus yards downfield, he went 7-of-27 with two touchdowns and three interceptions last year.
In 2023, he's 20-of-38 for three scores and only one pick. Those are even better outcomes than his championship season of 2021 when he completed 50 percent of such throws but also committed nine turnovers.
(He and Tutu Atwell have also been piling up penalty yardage on earned pass interference flags.)
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but just a reminder that the Ravens are the third of four Rams opponents this season that will be coming off their bye – next week's opponent is the fourth.
So far, the Steelers and Cowboys have earned wins over L.A. after their open dates.
It's a severe scheduling disadvantage and one the Rams will have to find a way to overcome to keep their playoff push on track.
Don't expect any sympathy from the Ravens, who have the second-most difficult remaining strength of schedule per ESPN Analytics. After the Rams visit, Baltimore finishes at Jacksonville, at San Francisco, then home to the Dolphins and Steelers.
May the Fourth Be With You
If there's any weakness to the 9-3 Ravens, it's the fourth quarter. And that's baffling for a team that runs it so efficiently.
Baltimore has earned the NFL's best scoring differential (+157) in the first three quarters of games this season. They have led at the end of the third quarter in all 12 games, and that's tied for the third-longest streak to begin a season in the Super Bowl Era, according to NFL Research.
But in the fourth quarter (and overtime), their scoring differential plummets to -20.
83 of the 174 points Baltimore has surrendered this season have been scored in the fourth quarter and overtime.
As for peers on the NFC playoff bubble, here's my updated survey of the landscape.
I don't know that the Rams can reasonably expect to surpass the Packers down the stretch. (Luckily, my wife says I have a unique gift for being wrong.)
Green Bay doesn't have an opponent with a winning record left on their remaining schedule. And more importantly, they have that pesky head-to-head win over Los Angeles.
Look at these two adversaries and tell me which one looks more vulnerable to being overtaken by the Rams.
Green Bay (6-6): at NYG, TB, at CAR, at MIN, CHI
Minnesota (6-6): at LV, at CIN, DET, GB, at DET
Doesn't it seem like it's the Vikings ship that needs to sink to make room for the Rams in the wild card race?
It's too early for this, but I'll also preview the potential for a three-way tie between the Rams, Packers, and Vikings in which case the key for L.A. is that the first step would be to eliminate all but the highest-ranked club in each division. Therefore, the Rams goal is to have a better record than both or to have the same record as the Packers and Vikings. But again, that's for a much later day.
A more pressing concern: finding ponchos for Sunday.