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Week 4 Preview: Rams kick off division play with undefeated showdown vs. Cardinals

They've combined for nine wins and a +79 point differential, tops in the NFL.

Now, for the first time this season, the members of the NFC West clash head-to-head in four games over the next two weeks.

The featured contest, for the second week in a row, will be at SoFi Stadium between the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams.

It marks only the fourth divisional matchup of teams 3-0 or better in the last 20 seasons.

The winner will have a head start on the rest of the West.

Can They Find Their Way In San Jose?

Opposite the showdown at SoFi Stadium, a desperate Seattle group travels to San Francisco.

What's the better outcome for the Rams: The Seahawks taking a third loss or both teams sitting at 2-2?

Sounds like a win-win, I agree.

Regardless, it's worth noting that a short Week Five awaits the Rams. And as far as road Thursday Night Football assignments go, it's a gentle offering from the NFL schedule-makers. Division game, same time zone, and the opponent will be flying home from the Bay Area while the Rams are driving home on Sunday.

Last of the Unbeatens

The other franchises without a loss so far are Carolina, Denver, and Las Vegas.

Week Four sends the Panthers to Dallas; the Broncos host the Ravens; and on Monday Night, the Raiders take on the Chargers.

Seems entirely plausible that the winner of Cardinals-Rams could be the only team to reach 4-0.

Kupp Zigs, Rams Zag?

Cooper Kupp deservedly was honored as September's NFC Player of the Month.

Sooner or later, opposing defenses are going to have to do something about the leading receiver in the sport. Now that there are almost 200 plays of inventory on the Sean McVay-Matthew Stafford offense, what might the Cardinals be able to do to keep Kupp under wraps?

In some respects, Arizona's defense is the inverse of the Tampa Bay unit the Rams just picked apart. Not only do they get pressure, but they convert it into sacks. Edge Chandler Jones and defensive lineman J.J. Watt are both Top 10 in the NFL in pressures.

And whereas the Bucs are perennially one of the stoutest run defenses in the league but were injured and inexperienced in the secondary, the Cardinals are healthy and capable in coverage, but only 19th against the run, in terms of DVOA.

So especially if Darrell Henderson Jr. is ready to return to the Rams backfield, this could be the first time in 2021 where McVay vets the opponent with a dose of early down runs.

Second Half Shutdown

The book on the Cardinals also says you better get after them early. Because of the 52 points they've allowed, only 16 have been scored after halftime.

I won't bring up the McVay halftime stat you all love so much, but apparently neither of these NFC West leaders is the type of team you want to fall behind to.

Murray Magic

According to ESPN research, Kyler Murray is not only winless in four tries against Los Angeles, but he's also posted a QBR of 31 compared to a 64 versus all other opponents in his career. The Rams have sacked him 11 times and intercepted him four in those meetings.

Murray also got off to a fast start in 2020, and was the talk of the NFL during the Cardinals 6-3 start. It didn't last for the former No. 1 overall selection, but he looks different this time around.

For one, he's healthier – the Rams faced him with consequential injuries in both games last season. He's also benefitting from a refreshed receiving corps, with Larry Fitzgerald's targets now going to free agent acquisition A.J. Green and rookie second-round selection Rondale Moore. Christian Kirk is also having quite a start to his contract year.

Much like Stafford, Murray's putting up career-best efficiency numbers through three games. He also has a rushing score in each of Arizona's outings.

Just like a week ago versus Tom Brady, this is very much a MVP-caliber quarterback clash.

Protection Pain

Murray's performance looked particularly impressive in Jacksonville in the context of his ailing offensive line.

Right tackle Kelvin Beachum missed last week's game with fractured ribs. Guards Justin Pugh and Justin Murray each left with back injuries. That perfect storm elevated Sean Harlow from the practice squad to live game reps, and to their credit, the Cardinals offense appeared no worse for wear.

Still, against Aaron Donald and company, Friday's injury report will be critical to monitor for the Arizona line.

That's a Rapp

Murray also has to contend with his kryptonite, a.k.a. Taylor Rapp, who has two career interceptions – including a pick-six – off the Arizona quarterback. Both came in 2019; Rapp was on injured reserve for the 2021 matchups with the Cardinals.

No Gains Gaines

(Shout out to a YouTube channel commenter for that catchy phrase.)

This week on Rams Revealed, defensive tackle Greg Gaines spoke about how the top priority for his front is containment rush against a healthy and infinitely mobile Murray.

There will be an incredible University of Washington reunion at SoFi Stadium this weekend, as Rapp and Gaines are joined by Cardinals Budda Baker, Darrell Daniels, Ezekiel Turner and Byron Murphy Jr.

All overlapped as Huskies together in Seattle. (Just a few years after our own D'Marco Farr won a national title in 1991.)

Murphy collected two interceptions last week in Jacksonville, returning one for a touchdown. So opposite Stafford, NFC Offensive Player of the Week for a second time already, will be the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

Carrying the Flag

One last stray item I wanted to include. Kudos to the Rams coaches and players for leading the NFL in fewest penalties accepted against them so far this season. The same is true of penalty yardage.

That's a testament to their attention to detail and preparation for a new season, despite not playing in any of the three exhibition games in August. I'm particularly impressed by how physical they've been on defense – the Terrell Lewis hit on Rob Gronkowski last week comes to mind – while hitting blocks, playing coverage, and tackling legally.

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