Flying to Seattle in September, the chip on the shoulder of the Los Angeles Rams was so large it had to be checked luggage.
They played like a no-name group that had something to prove, holding the Seahawks to 12 net yards after halftime.
That win, along with worthy performances against the likes of San Francisco and Philadelphia in subsequent weeks, raised the bar of external expectations. Unfortunately, the Rams have fallen short of that standard for the past month, stumbling into the bye on a three-game losing skid.
We said in the moment they might regret letting opportunities get away in Cincinnati against a wounded Joe Burrow; against Pittsburgh with a chance to go up two scores in the second half; and most recently on the road against a slumping Green Bay.
Instead of 6-3, Los Angeles sat through a bitter bye week at 3-6. And now, there's little-to-no margin for error left this season.
When they're right, I don't believe there are seven NFC teams better than the Rams. But it's almost Thanksgiving, and the time for putting it all together is quickly passing them by. There's still a path to the postseason. But it has to start this weekend with a season sweep of the Seahawks.
If you missed it earlier this week, I detailed the reasons why Seattle is the franchise currently in the playoff framework the Rams need to be most concerned with chasing down.
Sunday at SoFi Stadium is a virtual must-win, because NFL teams falling to 3-7 have only made Wild Card weekend twice in 125 instances.
Because of what's ahead for the Seahawks, there's still ample reason to believe the Rams can overtake them.
And because of what's ahead for the Seahawks, maybe this week's opponent might get caught looking ahead.
Alternatively, Seattle could be locked in on revenge against the Rams, knowing wins are going to be tough to come by across their holiday schedule, with two games against the 49ers plus showdowns with the Cowboys and Eagles on deck.
Reflecting back on the Week 1 victory over the Seahawks, nothing stands out more than Puka Nacua's breakout debut performance, bursting onto the scene with 15 targets, 10 receptions, and 119 yards.
It was the start of a torrid first half, a record-setting pace that unfortunately but completely understandably waned in recent weeks. The Rams rookie receiver averaged 125.3 yards per game in Weeks 1-4 compared to 65.2 in Weeks 5-9.
A portion of that is the natural biproduct of Cooper Kupp's return to the field. Some certainly has to do with Matthew Stafford's injury in Dallas. And NFL defensive coordinators are the planet's fastest-evolving species, so combating Nacua's strengths and tendencies surely plays into it, as well.
Mostly, though, no one deserved the week off more than Nacua, who was sent through the mental, physical, and emotional spin cycle of sudden NFL stardom, and has been playing through bumps and bruises from the outset.
It wouldn't be the least bit alarming if Nacua's gradual descent back to Earth had coincided with a spike in Kupp's production.
Unfortunately, and for reasons already mentioned, the general malaise has impacted all corners of the Rams offense since their second half triumph over Arizona in Week 6.
In all three losses going into the bye, Kupp was held to fewer than five receptions. His 98 yards combined in that span (and zero touchdowns) represent the worst stretch of his career.
You don't need me to write it, but for the Rams to get anywhere close to where they're trying to go, Kupp and Nacua need to be a dynamic duo.
Be All (Tight) End All
But they cannot, and should not be expected to, do it all themselves.
This second half of the Rams season is very much about, "Who else?"
Consider that the tight end room is without a touchdown through nine games. We've been made aware that Tyler Higbee is playing through pain, and perhaps that excuses a 10.3% drop rate, by far the most severe since his rookie campaign.
But the Rams have been carrying three at that position, and just activated a fourth from injured reserve in Hunter Long. In both the run and pass game, this unit could be key to unlocking the full potential of the Rams offense down the stretch.
Et Tu, Tu
Don't good things seem to happen when Tutu Atwell gets touches?
It's statistically supported, as well. He's a top 60 receiver this season according to Pro Football Focus (Nacua is 14, Kupp 18). And his Expected Points Added on a per target basis ranks 62nd in the NFL (Nacua is 21st, Kupp 93rd).
I believe Atwell has earned a larger target share, and will thrive in an environment where his two running mates are commanding coverage.
Painted Into A Corner
On defense, it's no secret that the secondary must make significant strides after a week to regroup.
And this week presents arguably the most thorough challenge left on the schedule, now that rookie first round pick Jaxon Smith-Njigba is up to speed in the Seahawks offense. Seattle's first-round pick runs 70% of his routes from the slot according to NextGen Stats, and L.A. has allowed 8.3 yards per passing attempt to slot receivers in 2023 (fourth-most in NFL).
With Cobie Durant sidelined by a shoulder injury, we saw the Rams shuffle their secondary in Dallas and Green Bay with inconsistent results. Now, they have to contend with D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Geno Smith coming off a career-high in passing yards.
One emerging star in the L.A. secondary – pun intended – is Quentin Lake, who was profiled on our most recent Rams Revealed.
Smith-Njigba has helped transform the Seahawks into a dangerous screen team and an elite offense after the catch.
Last Sunday against Washington, the Seahawks gained 258 yards after the catch, the second-highest total in the league this season. The most important of those yards may have been the last 10, which Metcalf accumulated while carrying Commanders defenders into game-winning field goal range in the final seconds.
Running back Ken Walker has also made great strides in the receiving game, surpassing his rookie totals through the air and registering his first touchdown catch in the win over the Commanders – a one-yard completion turned 64-yard touchdown dash.
Tackling has been an issue for the Rams defense this season, and will play an outsized role in determining this Week 11 outcome.
The Seahawks other first-round selection, in fact their first pick of the most recent draft, has also emerged since the Rams opening win in the Pacific Northwest.
Cornerback Devon Witherspoon's 5.9 yards allowed per target are second-fewest in the league (minimum 50 targets). He has two sacks and two interceptions, including a 97-yard return for a touchdown in New York. Unsurprisingly, he's PFF's highest-graded rookie corner and a 38.2 passer rating allowed this season.
"Yeah, I was glad he didn't play against us in the opener," head coach Sean McVay said this week. "He is a baller. He's really impressive."
"His energy jumps off the tape when you watch it, both when he's covering guys and when he's running the tackle and hit blitz into the backfield," Matthew Stafford added. "He's a playmaker all over the field."
Sunday represents a nice showdown in the race for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, which also includes Philadelphia tackle Jalen Carter, Detroit safety Brian Branch, and Houston end Will Anderson.
But when it comes to pass rush, Seahawks outside linebacker Boye Mafe has earned his place atop the list of forces in this game.
He has at least one sack in seven straight games, the longest streak in franchise history. He's already tripled his pressure total from his rookie year.
Collectively, the Seahawks are top five in the league in sacking the quarterback, with Mafe seemingly making up for the loss of Uchenna Nwosu in Week 7 to season-ending injured reserve. The recent trade for Pro Bowl defensive end Leonard Williams doesn't hurt, either.
And if it feels like the Rams just can't go a single week without facing a ferocious pass rush, that's because it's true – they cannot. Of the top 11 teams in Pro Football Focus pass rush grading, the Rams have faced seven of them.
For the first time in league history, six games were decided by game-winning field goals as time expired last week.
And that's another area where Seattle is special.
Their kicker, Jason Meyers, is the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his contribution to that total. Meyers drilled his fifth field goal in the win over Washington from 43 yards and has now made at least one field goal in 24 straight games, a Seattle record.
The Seahawks boast the best average starting field position in the NFL; the Rams are 30th. The Seahawks are top five in opponent starting field position; the Rams are 30th.
L.A. continues to bring up the rear in the NFL in special teams DVOA. There is no path to the postseason if the third phase continues to be the Achilles heel.
Take a look through photos of Los Angeles Rams players practicing ahead of Sunday's Week 11 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.
So what don't the Seahawks do well, at this point? Where are they vulnerable?
Well, their quarterback play increasingly had been cause for concern until Geno Smith put together a solid second half and led that game-winning field goal drive in Week 10.
What I noticed was how the Commanders were able to utilize their running backs in the passing game. A good portion of that was simply Sam Howell playing off platform and improvising, something I wouldn't bank on with Matthew Stafford this weekend.
But Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson combined for 11 receptions for 161 yards receiving and two touchdowns through the air. Much as we admire Bobby Wagner (and his running mate Jordyn Brooks), perhaps there's something to pick on for Rams running back Darrell Henderson Jr. and McVay?
The other statistical issue in Seattle has been third down. It's inexplicable that the Seahawks can be 6-3 despite ranking 30th in the NFL in offensive and defensive third down efficiency.
Recall that the Seahawks recorded one (1) first down in the second half of the Rams Week 1 victory – and that was via penalty! While it's unrealistic to hope for anything near as dominant in the rematch, let's see if the Rams can do as well to get off the grass on defense and keep drives alive on offense, like they did while controlling the time of possession by nearly a 20-minute margin in the opener.
A month since the Rams last win, three years since their last November triumph. Here's to bringing those trends to a close on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.