I have no objection to the moniker "defending champions," per se. However, I'm opting not to use it for the 2022 Los Angeles Rams.
I prefer "reigning champions."
Because when I look at what the team did last year, I find nothing that needs defending.
Aaron Donald cemented his legacy with the only thing missing from his trophy case – a Super Bowl ring.
Cooper Kupp authored the most incredible individual season in football history.
Matthew Stafford exorcised all the prime time, winning opponent, postseason, and #QBWins demons that had haunted him for a dozen seasons.
Andrew Whitworth went out with a Walter Payton Man of the Year honor, a Super Bowl triumph over the franchise that drafted him, and the names of his injured teammates Sharpied on his undershirt.
None of those truths need defending. The banner that will be unfurled on Thursday night is permanent. And since Super Bowl LVII is scheduled for Glendale, not Inglewood, there's nothing about 2021 that can be replicated by the Rams over the next six months.
This season is about extending their reign. Atop the West, the NFC, and perhaps the NFL.
So while "run it back" may still be echoing throughout Los Angeles, forward is the only direction to becoming a dynasty.
The 17th Shall Be First
This is the 17th game, the like-place-finisher-AFC-crossover assignment, and therefore the final piece to one of the most rigorous schedules in league history, and it just so happens to come against the preseason Super Bowl favorite.
But that doesn't make it the most important game on the schedule. In fact, I'll argue it's one of the least consequential.
Not to steal one iota of hype from the moment, but just a reminder that "Record against the opposing conference" isn't on the exhaustive list of NFL tiebreakers. So the outcome against the Bills is worth less than a game against any NFC opponent and far less than a division result.
Conceivably, Thursday could factor in to "Strength of victory" and "Strength of schedule." But the likelihood of those potential implications is small.
Nonetheless, the best games don't always occur in February. So I'm all for relishing this moment for what it is – a matchup of two of the best rosters on the planet.
There are all sorts of ways to convey just how close the 2021 Bills were to representing the AFC in Super Bowl LVI, but here are two of my personal favorites:
In the Wild Card round, they played the first perfect offensive game in NFL history, and they did it against Bill Belichick and the Patriots. They scored a touchdown on every single possession – no field goals, punts, or turnovers.
Secondly, the Bills went 0-6 (including playoffs) in one-possession games, accounting for all but one of their losses. Twice, Buffalo lost in overtime, including a Divisional Round defeat in Kansas City (13 seconds of which will live in infamy in upstate New York and forced an NFL rule change this offseason).
What's the saying? "Better to be lucky than good?"
The 2021 Bills were extraordinarily good. But almost as unlucky.
"A" as in Allen
Coming back for 2022, there's a case to be made that Buffalo has the best offense and defense in the league – and therefore the best roster, led by an MVP front-runner at quarterback.
Just how much of a unicorn has Josh Allen proven to be?
According to NFL Research, he's the only player in history with 100-plus passing touchdowns and at least 25 rushing scores over his first four seasons. And he's also the only quarterback the NFL has ever seen with four straight seasons of at least six rushing touchdowns.
As an interesting sidebar, the Rams played a role in the Bills finding the face of their franchise. Buffalo traded up to get him on Draft Day 2018, using the second round pick they received in a 2017 deal with the Rams for receiver Sammy Watkins.
One the other side of the signal-caller equation, there are three current NFL franchises Matthew Stafford has yet to beat.
He's 0-4 career against the Titans, 0-2 versus the Steelers, and winless in two attempts against the Buffalo Bills.
I recall it being fairly meaningful to Stafford's friend and former teammate Andrew Whitworth, when the left tackle beat the Cincinnati Bengals in London in 2019 to complete his bingo card.
That won't happen for QB1 in 2022. Barring a Super Bowl showdown, his next shot at a team on his short list won't come until next season when the Steelers visit at SoFi Stadium.
On January 16, 2021, in the Divisional Round at Green Bay, you'll recall rookie running back Cam Akers rushing for a third-quarter score and cashing in the two-point conversion – a playoff octopus, for those of you scoring at home.
As of Thursday night, it will have been exactly 600 days since Akers' last touchdown. Just going to leave that there.
DH27's big game at BUF in 2020
I'm also bullish on Darrell Henderson Jr.'s prospects in 2022, and he's already authored a career day against the Bills.
In Week 3 of 2020 in Orchard Park, Henderson got the lion's share of carries, rushing 20 times for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Here are the year-by-year reception totals for Rams running backs in the five years since McVay was hired:
2017 – 74
2018 – 70
2019 – 37
2020 – 50
2021 – 53
So with a high of 74 and an average of 57 catches per season, I think this running back room will surpass those marks with ease.
Akers, Henderson, and rookie Kyren Williams are a dynamic trio destined for mismatches in coverage, and the Rams offense is structured to capitalize.
Hilltopping the List
Tyler Higbee, former Western Kentucky Hilltopper, is set to cement his name atop the Rams tight end record books.
He already has more career yards (2,487) and receptions (234) than any of his peers, and he enters 2022 needing just one touchdown to tie and two to break the franchise record for tight ends held by Damone Johnson (18).
I'm curious how the Rams will manage his snap count and what value they'll be able to extract from the rest of the tight end room – a spacious room he currently shares with (checks roster again) only one other player, Brycen Hopkins.
Hoping History Repeats Itself
The last person to win the first six season-openers of his head coaching career was Mike Shanahan. Sean McVay will try to replicate that feat on Thursday.
Of note, the Denver Broncos won consecutive Super Bowls in Shanahan's fifth and sixth seasons (1997-98, h/t NFL Research). Given the close connection between the two – Shanahan hired then 24-year-old McVay to be an assistant on his Washington staff in 2010 – that's one worth filing away should things go the Rams way in this opener.
The Los Angeles Rams were on the field for practice ahead of their regular season opener against the Buffalo Bills on Thursday September 8th. Take a look at photos from practice!
But let's face it, the lofty dreams of a dynasty are extremely unlikely. There's a reason the NFL's only seen eight instances of repeat champions, and none in nearly two decades.
A fair-minded observer can acknowledge that the Rams cannot reasonably anticipate all the health and good fortune they enjoyed in 2021. (Please keep the receipts here and we can celebrate together when I'm wrong.)
A future Hall of Famer like Von Miller may not be available at this year's trade deadline; we'll see whether or not Odell Beckham, Jr. is still a free agent come November; let's assume Eric Weddle is really, really retired this time.
If the stars refuse to align and the Rams do regress ever-so-slightly in certain areas, the only way back to the final game of the season entails growth in others.
Therefore, I wanted to finish by highlighting a short list of dimensions where I know Los Angeles can make incremental improvements from 2021.
Run game efficiency: In the regular season, some of the underlying metrics indicated the Rams were decent on the ground. But their success evaporated in the playoffs, leading McVay to understandably and famously abandon the running game in the Super Bowl. This portfolio of backs, the inclusion of Joe Noteboom and Coleman Shelton on this offensive line, and an offseason commitment to restoring the attack should lead to better outcomes. I'm not suggesting the Rams become a run-heavy offense. Merely that the Rams be able to hand it off when necessary.
Stafford's interception percentage: We know his debut season in Horns produced an NFL-high 17 picks. But according to Pro Football Focus, Stafford committed only the fifth-most turnover-worthy plays (25) among quarterbacks. Their research indicates that roughly half of turnover-worthy plays become takeaways, on average. So even without becoming more ball-secure (and for the record, I think Stafford will), his turnover number should moderate.
Red zone efficiency: After finishing third in attempts per game but only 15th in touchdown percentage, the Rams have two advantages going into this season – optimism about the revamped running game and the human catch radius named Allen Robinson II.
Fourth down aggressiveness: The math says there are points for the taking, here. Perhaps not every week, and definitely not in every instance. But over the course of a season, the Rams have the personnel (on offense and defense) to play more percentages.
Non-offensive touchdowns: The Rams did not score on defense in the 2021 regular season, and only put one in the paint on special teams.
Become the best defense in modern Rams history: Hold up – he wrote what, now?
Yes, I've become convinced that with this roster, the Rams can be the best iteration this era has produced. And they may have to be, given the elite quarterbacks and offenses they'll face in the next 18 weeks.
Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner, and Jalen Ramsey each have the most All-Pro selections at their positions since respectively entering the NFL. Boasting a future Hall of Fame talent at each level and supplemented by exceptional home-grown talent, this defense can take the Rams the distance.
In summation, this year's narrative arc could not possibly resemble the 2021 journey. That script will never be replicated.
But the 2022 Los Angeles Rams are fully capable of outperforming last year's Super Bowl Champions in critical ways. And if they do, the end result can be identical.
Can't wait to watch them run it forward.