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No shortage of storylines in Rams-Lions Wild Card tilt | Game Preview

This is the most interesting matchup I've studied since Super Bowl LVI.

Granted, it's the first playoff game for Los Angeles since that evening at SoFi Stadium. Nonetheless, Rams and Lions might be even more captivating than Rams versus Bengals was back in February of 2022.

Surely, the team similarities and contrasts have a lot to do with Lions general manager Brad Holmes coming from the Rams organization and being aligned with Les Snead in roster construction. And there's so much more to it than the quarterbacks, which we'll dig into in detail.

But Matthew Stafford returning to Detroit and Jared Goff leading the Lions to their first division title in three decades are undoubtedly the leading reasons why this prime time showdown has such depth to it.

After all, this will be the first matchup in NFL postseason history between both starters facing their former teams. And even if there was another instance, this would stand apart because the two were literally dealt for each other.

It's nice to know that NFL trades can be win-win.

But Wild Card contests cannot.

Matthew in Motown

Let's start with Stafford, the most prolific quarterback in Lions history and likely their greatest.

He did everything for Detroit but win the division and advance in the playoffs – not that either of those shortcomings fall on his shoulders.

On his end of the equation, I don't sense there's much to prove.

Would it be vintage Nine to finally win a playoff game in Detroit… at the expense of Detroit? Sure.

Might he have to manage some emotions pulling into Ford Field for the first time as an opponent? Sure.

But once the game starts? The only pressure he should feel is the Lions pass rush, which we'll get to in short order.

Goff the Chain

As for Jared Goff, first let me put down in digital ink how much I admire and appreciate what he's done as a person and player throughout his career – which I began covering in Berkeley.

I'm thankful to Goff for the multitude of fond memories he authored: from the perfect game on Thursday Night against the Vikings to the greatest game in Monday Night Football history; blocking out the noise in New Orleans and sending the Seahawks to Cabo with nine good fingers.

And just as he resurrected Cal and the Rams, he's done it again for the Motor City.

"I so badly want to win a game for this city – win a playoff game for this city," Goff said this week.

The 29-year-old was born more than two years after the Lions won their last playoff game; that franchise is 0-7 in the postseason in his lifetime. This is another career-defining moment for him.

He's so similar to the player he was in Horns, and yet his progress is also undeniable.

On the one hand, the difference between Goff's passer rating when clean versus and when pressured is the largest drop-off in the NFL in 2023, according to Next Gen Stats. By passer rating, only San Francisco's Brock Purdy was better this season when protected. By touchdown-to-interception ratio, only Washington's Sam Howell was worse under duress.

On the other hand, just last week Goff picked apart Minnesota's relentless blitz. Why is that significant? Because the Vikings defensive coordinator is Brian Flores, who was the same Bill Belichick disciple who attacked Goff with zero blitz in 2020. And I'll always believe the beginning of the end of the Goff era in L.A. was that day in Miami when he couldn't solve for Flores, turning it over four times and losing to the Dolphins. Last Sunday he went for 320 yards, two scores, and zero giveaways.

Seeing Red

Among the many similarities between the way the quarterbacks have played since the trade and again this season, red zone performance is what stands out most.

According to NFL Research, Goff (18 TD, 0 INT) and Stafford (17 TD, 0 INT) are the only players with 15 or more passing touchdowns in the red zone without an interception in 2023.


I think the coaching storylines are just as good. Think about how staggeringly different their paths to this Sunday are.

Dan Campbell played tight end for ten years, then coached for another decade before ascending to the top spot.

Sean McVay coached tight ends in Washington briefly on his way to being hired by the Rams at 30.

He went to two Super Bowls and won one before he experienced a day below .500 in the NFL.

The Lions needed 12 games to get Campbell his first victory. They had to stomach a tie before they got a win in 2021.

Detroit's head coach articulated the ethos of his team perfectly after finishing this season 12-5.

"They're scarred to perfection, and we will be ready," Campbell said after his Lions matched a franchise record for wins.

That's poet laureate stuff coming from a guy whose most famous phrase was about biting kneecaps.

If you watched how he handled the closing sequence of Week 17 in Dallas, you don't need a statistic to comprehend how aggressive Campbell and the Lions will be Sunday night. According to ESPN, Detroit went for it on fourth down 34 percent of their opportunities this season, the highest rate of any team this century!

And if you're reading this column, you know that the Rams have consistently been at the other end of the spectrum under this staff – they only attempted 17 percent of fourth downs this season (20th in the NFL).

Make McVay Right

McVay's seven playoff wins are already two more than any other coach in history had prior to turning 40 years old (the Rams head coach is approaching 38), according to NFL Research.

He knows what he's doing, here.

And unlike Campbell, who played the top of his depth chart in pursuit of the two-seed (despite the Dallas Cowboys being the heaviest favorite in the league in Week 18), McVay rested his pillars even with the six-seed completely within his grasp.

It worked out for the Rams, who rallied to beat the 49ers anyway. It did not for the Lions, who won their finale but exposed tight end Sam LaPorta and receiver/returner Kalif Raymond to knee injuries.

This season, the Lions averaged 1.3 more yards before first contact with LaPorta on the field compared to plays he was off (per NGS). The Rams had trouble contending with tight ends, allowing the fourth-most yards (987) and second-most touchdowns (8) to that position in 2023. It's hard to see Campbell's decision as anything but the wrong choice if LaPorta is anything less than 100 percent.

Now it's up to the Rams, who are as fresh as can be, to make McVay right.

For example, Cooper Kupp only needed to play 61 snaps in the 25 days leading into Sunday's playoff game.

What if the Super Bowl MVP's best work in an injury-riddled season is still to come?

Every Day's An Audition

One more quick coaching juxtaposition.

There's ample reason to believe that Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris – for whom we've been stumping for multiple seasons, now – will be hired as head coaches this cycle.

Deservedly, both have already received interview requests, and so has Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.

Not that any individual should be judged solely on Sunday's outcome. Quite the opposite, in fact. Their bodies of work speak for themselves and are more trustworthy than a four-quarter sample size.

But what better interview than the pressure-cooker of the NFL playoffs?

Speaking from Experience

The only active player who's been in a Super Bowl huddle with Goff and Stafford is Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein.

And he could be the most important player for L.A. on Sunday, because he'll be locking horns with Aidan Hutchinson – the second selection in last year's Draft and the only player, since sacks became an official stat, with 20 or more plus four interceptions in his first two NFL seasons.

Havenstein has family ties to Michigan, too. So he was the ideal guest to preview Super Wild Card Weekend on Rams Revealed.

Sack Attack

And while we're orbiting around Hutchinson, let's also point out that the Rams are one of four rosters boasting at least four players with eight sacks. The Ravens, Colts and Dolphins are the others.

According to NFL Research, the Rams are the just the second team since 1982 (when sacks became official) to have multiple rookies each register eight-plus, as Kobie Turner (9) and Byron Young (8) topped the category.

The only other? Of course, the 2022 Lions with Hutchinson and linebacker James Houston (who unfortunately landed on injured reserve after only two appearances this season, but may be in line to return for Sunday).

Rush and Cover

So that's part of the pass rush story, and it goes hand-in-hand with the coverage in the back end.

That's where the rubber meets the road in this contest.

When two of the most dynamic passing attacks in the NFL take the field on Sunday, they'll be surveying two of the most porous secondaries.

The Rams have the 31st-rated coverage unit in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, and safety Jordan Fuller was injured last week at San Francisco.

The Lions have the 29th-rated coverage unit. In each of the last 2 weeks, they've allowed an opposing receiver at least 190 rec yards. The Lions also allowed 22 touchdowns to opposing wideouts in 2023 (third-most in NFL). They do have some key pieces returning at the right time, like the artist formerly known as C.J. Gardner-Johnson, now Ceedy Duce.

We spent a lot of time discussing those matchups on this week's Between the Horns with D'Marco Farr and Maurice Jones-Drew.

Life of a Linebacker

Both defenses will get after opposing quarterbacks with extra rushers from all levels of the field.

Stafford and Goff better set their protections to account for Alex Anzalone and Ernest Jones, respectively. Those two lead all linebackers in pressures in 2023, per NGS. And Detroit safety Ifeatu Melifonwu has been a revelation, with three sacks, five QB hits, and two interceptions in the last five games.

Pass protection from running backs will be important as ever, and that was a strength of the Rams but a weakness of the Lions, according to PFF grades.

Man in Motion

The Rams offense deployed pre-snap motion at one of the highest clips in the league this season – only the Dolphins and 49ers built off it more frequently, according to ESPN – and Stafford thrived.

Conversely, when faced with pre-snap motion, the Lions defense is allowing more yards per passing attempt than any defense besides the Bengals. Detroit allowed 19 passing touchdowns on plays with pre-snap motion, tied with the Chargers and Commanders for most this season.

Axe to Grind

Of course, the Rams passing defense has plenty cause for concern when the Lions are on the field, especially with respect to Amon-Ra St. Brown.

He's a yards-after-catch menace, leading the league in that category. He also topped the NFL with nine games of over 100 yards receiving.

St. Brown feasts on zone coverage. In fact, only Tyreek Hill had more receiving yards against zone in 2023, according to NGS. And for years now, the Rams have played zone as much as any defense in the league (almost 78% of snaps in 2023).

Goff's preferred target was a Pro Bowl snub, and is notorious for carrying a grudge – on Hard Knocks he recited all 16 receivers taken before him in the 2021 NFL Draft from memory.

Puka Nacua, who was the 20th receiver off the board, edged him out for the 2023 honor. And if you aren't drowning in subplots yet, keep reading.

Back of the Book

Will either team remember to run the ball?

After all, both the Lions and Rams grade out as some of PFF's best run-blocking teams in 2023.

Kyren Williams is the first player in NFL history to finish top three in rushing yards while missing five or more games. Coincidentally, Lions legend Barry Sanders is the only other player to rank top five.

I also loved this visual for how the Rams stress defenses, particularly when Williams is on the field.

As for the Lions, Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery are the first teammates in league history to each have 1,000 scrimmage yards and double-digit rushing touchdowns. (NFL Research gets credit for both the above tidbits.)

Break the Mold

Perhaps what I respect and appreciate most about the Rams and Lions is that their current regimes have both been willing to go against the grain to find that competitive edge.

And there are so many examples, I'll spare you but a familiar few related to roster construction:

As you know, the Rams haven't drafted a player in the first round since taking the now-Lions quarterback in 2016. Those picks have been allocated to acquiring Goff, Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey, and Matthew Stafford – elite talents at premium positions.

The Lions were widely expected to use Goff as a bridge to their next franchise quarterback. But instead they built around him, and most recently selected a running back and an off-ball linebacker in April's first round (plus a tight end at 34 overall) – huge no-nos in the analytics world. PFF called Gibbs “a big reach” and Jack Campbell "not a good value pick" and described the LaPorta selection as "shock(ing) the football world once again."

Conversely, the Rams are getting record-setting seasons from a Day Three running back in Williams and a Day Two linebacker in Ernest Jones IV, which is part of the reason they were able to take the salary cap pain in 2023 and still make the postseason.

Whose House Money

Indeed, L.A. is playing with house money as they fly to Michigan. Win or lose, they accomplished what they set out to do and did it with a flourish.

And with that as the backdrop, I'm approaching this January on parallel tracks, mentally.

On one rail is this note from OverTheCap, which is a good reminder that the 2023 Rams played with one hand (voluntarily) tied behind their back.

However, on track number two is the reality I've been pressing into since the bye week, when the Rams were 3-6. For readers of this space, I apologize for the redundancy – but it would be naive to think they'll be right back here next year just because their books are clean and their draft is finally stocked.

That's not how the NFL works. Plus, have you seen the 2024 schedule?

Right here, right now, name a team the Rams cannot beat if they play to their potential.

They just took out the NFC's top seed in Santa Clara, despite the 49ers playing more starters for more snaps.

L.A.'s last loss, and only loss since the bye, came in overtime against the AFC's top seed.

Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Sean McVay only have so many more opportunities together. There's no reason sights should be set any lower than the Lombardi Trophy.

Take a look through photos of Los Angeles Rams players practicing ahead of Sunday's Wild Card matchup against the Detroit Lions.

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