Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.
We would all prefer to be playing "meaningful football in December," but as this season winds down, how could we not be even more appreciative of the five-year run of success from 2017's division crown through the 2021 World Championship?
Sustained excellence in the NFL is not the norm. Los Angeles did it as well as any peer in that span.
With three games to go, and hardly enough healthy players to get to the finish line, the Rams are cast in a different role this Christmas – including hosting on the 25th of December at SoFi Stadium.
I was finally pushed to the point where I had to check.
Of the group we anticipate being active to take on the Denver Broncos, how many were expected to contribute in 2022? How many made the team coming out of training camp? And how many others weren't even with the Rams during the offseason program?
Projected starters (17): Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Brandon Powell (as a returner), Tyler Higbee, Coleman Shelton, Rob Havenstein, Troy Hill, Jalen Ramsey, Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott, Bobby Wagner, Ernest Jones, Leonard Floyd, Greg Gaines, Matt Gay, Riley Dixon, Matthew Orzech.
Rostered (16): Bryce Perkins, Kyren Williams, Tutu Atwell, Lance McCutcheon, Brycen Hopkins, Bobby Evans, Derion Kendrick, Cobie Durant, Russ Yeast, Robert Rochell, Quentin Lake, Daniel Hardy, Christian Rozeboom, Jonah Williams, Bobby Brown III, Michael Hoecht.
Not on the initial 53-man (15): Baker Mayfield, Ronnie Rivers, Malcolm Brown, Austin Trammell, Ty Nsekhe, Matt Skura, Oday Aboushi, Zach Thomas, AJ Arcuri, Jeremiah Kolone, Shaun Jolly, Larrell Murchison, Earnest Brown IV, Keir Thomas, T.J. Carter.
Subject to a few alterations between now and kickoff, that's the group of 48 Rams who will have helmets on Sunday, and they break down evenly – a third were part of the plan from the beginning, a third were supposed to be depth pieces and developmental prospects, and a third likely wouldn't have been called upon at all under better circumstances.
A third are also rookies, just to underscore the state of the roster.
Since he celebrated a birthday this week and is coming off interceptions in back-to-back games, I wanted to highlight Taylor Rapp's productive closing stretch, particularly in a contract year. The now 25-year-old is coming off the two highest-graded games of his season, according to Pro Football Focus. He's the 29th-rated safety in the NFL and tops in his position group on the Rams roster, by that same service.
Final Home Game
The Rams will be back in Inglewood next Sunday to face the Chargers – but technically, that's a road trip.
So as with any year, several home-grown contributors, like Rapp, could be suiting up for their last home game in Los Angeles on Sunday when the Rams face the Broncos.
The list includes fellow draft picks Long, Evans, Gaines, Scott, David Edwards, Travin Howard, and Jacob Harris as well as free agent additions Hill, Hoecht, Powell, Gay, Perkins, John Wolford, A'Shawn Robinson, and Marquise Copeland. (Note: several of those names will not dress due to injury and unfortunately could have already played their last down in Horns, we just didn't know it.)
I've had the privilege of getting to know and work with many men on that list, and just wanted to note my appreciation for their contributions on the field and in the community for many seasons.
Baker Mayfield falls in that free agent category, as well. The hope and expectation is that he'll make these final three starts and give the entire NFL fresh film to consider this offseason.
But how fair of an evaluation can be drawn from playing in his current predicament? After all, we've seen three other quarterbacks – Matthew Stafford, Wolford, and Perkins – struggle within the Rams 2022 reality.
Sean McVay's comments this week were revealing in many respects, but in particular, they highlighted one area where Mayfield can improve before year's end: understanding where and who his checkdown is, then being more timely and accurate distributing the football underneath and to the flats.
"It's why what he did was so unique against the Raiders," the head coach said with respect to Mayfield's attempt to master the Rams assortment of formations, pre-snap motions, and progressions. "But I also think it creates a false sense of expectations just based on the nuances that that position entails week in and week out with the plethora of different things that you can kind of activate."
Entering his third appearance with Los Angeles, and if the Rams are to beat the Broncos, look for Mayfield to shorten up his time to throw and average depth of target, with the hope of taking fewer negative plays and keeping the offense ahead of the chains.
24 on the 25th?
According to NFL Research, the Broncos offense has scored 24 in consecutive games against Kansas City and Arizona, after failing to score 24 in any of their prior 12 contests.
Meantime, the Rams have not scored 24 since Week 6 against Carolina, prior to their bye.
Sunday feels like a game where 24 points should be enough to carry either team to victory. Like Los Angeles, the Denver defense has been valiant despite seldom being in advantageous time and score situations.
Mild Mild West
It goes without writing the league and its television partners had higher hopes for this matchup when scheduling the Christmas kickoff.
Russell Wilson's trade to Denver was a giant piece of the perception that the AFC West would be the best division in football.
As of this writing, only the Chiefs have scored more touchdowns than they've allowed. And the Broncos and Raiders are on the brink of playoff elimination. Suffice it to say, the AFC West didn't live up to the hype.
As for the NFC West, which last year produced three postseason clubs and the Super Bowl winner? If the Playoffs started today, only San Francisco would advance.
Finally, as our focus shifts to 2023, three opponents are still to be determined on next year's schedule.
The Rams will host the like-place finisher in the NFC South and travel to face the like-place finishers in the AFC South and NFC North.
As of this writing, that would mean a home game against the Falcons and road trips to Houston and Chicago. But that could still change entirely over the next three games. In terms of impact on 2023, I tend to think scheduling formula is more consequential than draft order with respect to how you finish in the standings.