Happy New Year!
A flip of the calendar can be a great time for change – for setting new goals and establishing new habits.
And while the Los Angeles Rams were imperfect in 2021, the last thing they need is a clean slate. They've been at this for months. Stacking blocks, steadily building, and improving each day.
As a result of the work they've been pouring in since OTAs and training camp, they're exactly where they want to be at the outset of 2022.
To be the best in the NFC West requires one more trip east, for a Week 17 rumble with the Ravens.
And the only New Year's resolution the Rams need is to finish what they've started.
Hats and T-Shirts
From down three games (including the head-to-head tiebreaker) at the start of December, now the Rams are a game up on the Arizona Cardinals with two to play.
A win for Los Angeles in Baltimore combined with an Arizona loss in Dallas, and the Rams will be your 2021 NFC West Champions.
Here's what's intriguing about Sunday: IF THEY HANDLE THEIR BUSINESS FIRST, the Rams actually can earn the right to root against that scenario. There's a school of thought – and I've gone back and forth on this all week – where Dallas losing might be in L.A.'s best interest in pursuit of the NFC's two-seed.
The Rams would then need to beat the 49ers on January 9 at SoFi Stadium to wrap up the division, but who's reading this and demanding anything but that outcome, anyway?
The Cowboys are going to edge the Rams in a tiebreaker, due to their superlative conference record. So the Rams need to win out and for Dallas to lose. The Cowboys' finale is at Philadelphia, with the Eagles fighting to get in, meaning a Week 18 loss is entirely possible.
But again, this digital ink isn't worth a declined penalty unless L.A. can beat Baltimore first.
The 17th Game
I know it's only Game 16, but this matchup right here is the manifestation of the NFL's first 17-game schedule, and the NFC-AFC like-place-finisher methodology, which can feel like it requires an advanced degree in astrophysics to decipher.
It's on the schedule because the NFL expanded the regular season slate – and that made the Rams path to a championship much more difficult.
Sure, the Ravens are scuffling, having dropped four in a row amidst a COVID outbreak and some of the league's worst injury misfortune.
Still, this is part two of a road back-to-back, with both games in the early window, against a physical and desperate opponent. The Ravens were the AFC's top seed five weeks ago. They were a two-point conversion away from taking down the Packers with Tyler Huntley.
It's a bad draw, no way around it.
But the Rams are determined to spin it to the positive.
Sean McVay said this week, he is actually thankful for the "reverse flex" that moved kickoff up three hours.
Rise and Shine
And there's good reason for that positivity.
The Rams already have early window road wins at Indianapolis, New York, Houston, and Minnesota.
Since McVay was hired, they've gone 12-3 in such games. 14-3 if you want to include wins in London in 2017 and 2019.
It's absolutely one of the most impressive keys to the success they've achieved over the last five years.
Many Happy Returns
For more good vibes, I highly recommend this week's Rams Revealed with return man Brandon Powell, coming off a 61-yard touchdown to lift L.A. in Week 16.
Not only did he keep that football, he's sleeping next to it!
Margin For Error
For what it's worth, the Rams' win in Minneapolis marked the first time all season they prevailed despite losing the turnover battle (L.A. had been 0-4 in such games).
This week, they face a decimated Ravens defense with only six interceptions and 11 total takeaways, both figures at the bottom of the NFL rankings.
You could tell a sizable portion of the Rams 2021 season story through red zone interceptions, alone.
Week 1: David Long Jr. interception vs. CHI
Week 2: Troy Reeder interception at IND
Week 7: Jalen Ramsey interception vs. DET
Week 14: Ernest Jones interception at ARI
Week 16: Travin Howard interception at MIN
It's probably not a sustainable defensive approach, to bank on picks in the shadow of your goalposts. But all those moments translated to wins, and there's no chance the Rams are 11-4 without them.
I don't think Cooper Kupp has to make another catch to win the triple crown.
His leads in the major categories amount to 26 receptions (over Davante Adams), 283 yards (over Justin Jefferson), and three TDs (over Mike Evans).
Those three would have to have two incredible weeks to catch him.
But of course, we want Kupp to play and play well on Sunday. He needs 47 yards to tie Isaac Bruce for the franchise record and 48 to set a new mark. And speaking only for myself here, I think it's important he break the record Sunday in his 16th game.
I'll get there eventually, in future years. But right now, it doesn't feel right to go overboard celebrating single-season accumulation records that are established in a 17th game.
Mark My Word
At a different position, Mark Andrews is having a similarly outrageous season for the Ravens.
As a tight end, he's 15 yards away from the Ravens' single-season franchise receiving record set by Michael Jackson in 1996, the franchise's inaugural campaign.
Combatting this position is one of the leading keys to the Rams finishing 13-4. Andrews first; George Kittle next week. Two elite tight ends that create issues for a defense coming off a phenomenal month.
December To Remember
How good has it been for the Rams defensively during this four-game win streak?
They surrendered fewer than 16 points per outing, on just six touchdowns (one of them coming on a 2-yard field last week in Minneapolis following a Matthew Stafford interception).
Raheem Morris' group created six takeaways in December and a bunch more fourth down stops.
Now they need a solution for the loss of Ernest Jones at middle linebacker.
Standing Tall on Short Fields
The sight of Sammy Watkins on Sunday will remind me of the 2017 season he had as a Ram, and especially his red zone production: seven of his eight touchdowns were generated inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Which brings us to Odell Beckham Jr. – who, to my way of thinking, is far and away the best red zone target the Rams have had since Watkins.
In five true games since signing (not counting the forced debut with no practice in San Francisco), he's scored four times, and three of those touchdowns have been red zone catches measuring one, two, and seven yards.
Finally, this has to be the most epic kicker matchup of the NFL season.
Six-time All-Pro Justin Tucker, who earlier this season reset the record for longest make in league history (66 yards).
And Matt Gay, who has a very good case for First-Team All-Pro honors in 2021. He's drilled 23 field goal attempts in a row, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Who would be surprised if the game came down to their right feet?