Meaningful football in December.
It's what every organization aims for, even if the ultimate sights are set higher than merely playing to get in down the stretch.
Like you, I believe the Rams should be 9-2 – maybe even 10-1 – not 7-4. But let's not allow that sentiment to detract from the reality that Los Angeles is in contention for the fourth consecutive season.
Five games to go; win them all, and they're NFC West champions for the third time in that span.
The Rams traded for Jalen Ramsey in October 2019 and made him the highest-paid cornerback in September. He's now under contract through 2025.
The Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins in a stunning move this March and made him the highest-paid receiver in September. He's now under contract through 2024.
"I felt bad for Deshaun Watson," Ramsey said regarding the Houston quarterback who lost one of the most prolific threats in the game. "And I had to get my mind right again," the Rams corner continued, referring to locking in for the renewal of their head-to-head in the NFC West.
Here's to tangling twice each regular season for many years to come. These showdowns are truly some of the most anticipated in professional football.
Tale of the Tape
They faced off seven times as AFC South rivals with the Jaguars and Texans.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Ramsey was the nearest defender on 64 of Hopkins' 81 targets in those games. While Hopkins collected three touchdowns, he also hauled in less than half his targets.
With their new teams, Hopkins has a reception on 20 percent of his routes run this season, the fourth-highest rate among receivers. Meanwhile, Ramsey has been targeted by opposing quarterbacks on less than 13 percent of his coverage snaps, the lowest rate of any corner. And only Jimmy Smith in Baltimore has given up fewer receiving yards on a per snap basis.
No Half Measures
So the question becomes: How to measure success this weekend?
Conveniently, Hopkins just faced another premier corner in New England.
Working largely (though not exclusively) against Stephon Gilmore last Sunday, he collected five receptions on seven targets for 55 yards.
That sounds like a decent measuring stick for the Rams defense in Week 13.
D.K. Metcalf, Mike Evans, and now Hopkins constitute quite a three-receiver gauntlet over the past four games for Ramsey. Thus far, he's prevailed.
Here's something we haven't discussed much in this space: the way the Rams have minimized penalties.
With just 4.1 accepted against them per game, Los Angeles has committed the second-fewest infractions in the league.
This is the week to point that out, considering their opponent is dead last in that category. Arizona has been flagged for 7.7 per contest.
On Again, Goff Again
After a week of harping on turnovers, everyone will rightly be focused on Jared Goff's interception and fumble numbers the rest of the way. When he's turnover-free, the Rams are 19-1 under Sean McVay (only loss was at Minnesota in 2017).
Yes, taking care of the football is the first priority. But play-making is also essential, and it's against the Rams nature to play conservatively. My hope and expectation is that Goff and McVay won't dial it down this December, but rather, attack.
After all, this has the potential to be a redeeming five-day stretch for them.
Not only with the chance to put the 49ers loss behind them on Sunday in Glendale, but in what will inevitably be cast as a "Super Bowl LIII Rematch" on Thursday night against Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Imagine how different next Friday might feel.
Pick a Card
That said, the Cardinals have nine interceptions in their last six games. So attack with precision.
Before I make this next point, let me preface it by saying that at this juncture of his career, it's fair to expect Goff to transcend his circumstances and elevate the personnel around him.
Nonetheless, his throwing windows might be more spacious if the Rams can get right in their running game. Ditto for the down and distances Goff is presented.
Since Andrew Whitworth's injury at the end of the first half of Week 10, L.A. is rushing for 3.19 yards per attempt. Subtract last week's 61-yard dash by Cam Akers, and that average sinks to 2.27 yards per carry.
Granted, Tampa Bay is as stout a run defense as the Rams will face all season. And the Niners had their number last Sunday at SoFi. Still, that production is unbecoming of what is still the most efficient running game in the NFL, per Football Outsiders.
Jerry Maguire's "Help me help you" line comes to mind, here.
Whether it's Goff stretching the field to lighten some boxes or the Rams ripping off a few meaningful runs to make their quarterback more at ease, the chicken and the egg both need to show up this Sunday.
I'll be very curious to see how much the other top overall selection, Kyler Murray, impacts this game as a runner.
Per ESPN, he's been held to three yards on designed runs over his last two games, and he's lost a yard on four zone-read keepers.
The right shoulder injury sustained in a Week 11 loss to Seattle has been identified as a culprit. The elevated blitz rate, especially from the edge, he's faced in recent weeks could also be a contributing factor.
Regardless, I appreciated the simplicity of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley's assessment this week, when he compared Murray to Russell Wilson in that a rep against him is "never over until it's over."
Just for Kicks
Will it come down to a game-winning kick on Sunday?
Both the Rams and Cardinals were defeated by field goals as time expired in Week 12. Both teams have had a rough year with respect to the kicking game.
Zane Gonzalez was a Pro Bowl alternate last season, but has regressed in 2020, having missed three important field goal attempts in recent weeks against Seattle, Miami, and New England.
Thankfully, the Rams are cautiously optimistic that they've found a long-term solution in Matt Gay, who booted the game-winner at Tampa and was spotless in his SoFi Stadium debut.
New Year's Rematch
According to NFL Research, this is the first meeting between the Rams and Cardinals in which both teams are above .500 since Week 10, 1984. That day, the Los Angeles Rams prevailed 16-13 over the St. Louis Cardinals on the strength of 208 yards rushing courtesy of Eric Dickerson.
How's that for a bit of Sunday inspiration?
These franchises will conclude the regular season on January 3 in Inglewood. Imagine what the stakes might be that afternoon: the first playoff trip in five years for the Cardinals; perhaps a NFC West crown for the Rams.
Long way to go before then.