The league's schedule makers were prescient in assigning Tennessee at Los Angeles to Sunday Night Football in Week 9, as it turns out to be the only contest between two teams with winning records this weekend.
The Titans and Rams are riding four-game victory streaks; both sides are undefeated against playoff teams from 2020; each has earned the best record atop their respective conferences.
This was also one of three nights the Rams designated to don their Modern Throwback uniforms, with a prime time audience and the Super Bowl XXXIV connection making for an ideal showcase. As it turns out, despite the lack of marquee games in this weekend, there are actually five Super Bowl rematches on tap – most in a week in history, per NFL Research.
We'll dive in to some of the game's nuances, including the loss of the NFL's leading rusher, in this preview. But first, just when you thought they were all in, the Rams trade two more 2022 picks for Von Miller.
Here Today, Von Tomorrow?
I had the privilege of sitting down with the newest Ram on Wednesday at the team's facility in Thousand Oaks.
General manager Les Snead had indicated that there was an eye toward the future with this transaction, and that the subject of playing beyond the final games of his current contract had been discussed with Miller's representatives. So I asked the Super Bowl 50 MVP how much thought he'd given to what might be beyond his age-32 season.
"You know, it's only natural to think about that," Miller responded. "I just had a son… he'll be 12 weeks (old) on Monday. And I want him to see me play. I want him to know who Daddy was on and off the football field.
"I would enjoy (Valor) watching me at SoFi Stadium in Royal and Sol."
That conversation is for another day, of course. But it was a sentimental and optimistic note from which to start.
In The Flo
This trade is designed to put more pass-rushers on the field than opposing offenses can monitor. So it's no surprise that the addition of Miller has stolen the spotlight from arguably the best three-game stretch of Leonard Floyd's career.
The 6-foot-5 bracket opposite Miller has 3.5 sacks in that span as well as three consecutive grades above 83.0 from Pro Football Focus.
The Titans would be well-served not to let their attention drift too far from Floyd.
Some EDGE to Them
In fact, that entire outside linebacker position group – an area of uncertainty, if not outright concern coming into 2020 – has outperformed.
Snap counts will have to be ceded to Miller, of course. But players like Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Terrell Lewis should be commended for their contributions. If things go according to plan, Justin Hollins may be freed up to play off-ball a bit more upon his return from injury in December.
Now in the center of it all on defense is a rookie third-round selection who just registered an interception, a shared sack, and pair of pressures in his starting debut.
Ernest Jones is a member of the Rams organization in part because of his leadership instincts, which pair nicely with his "GPS tracker" tackling ability and nose for the ball.
Surrounded by veterans, All-Pros, and even future Hall of Famers, that leaves Jones to focus on his responsibilities and letting his performance speak for itself.
It's About To Get Real
By my calculations, the Rams starting defense has allowed an average of 9.8 points across their winning streak, with nine takeaways and 13 sacks.
Then again, all those opponents have losing records and, apart from Seattle, rank among the worst offensive teams in the NFL.
Riding some confidence, acclimated to a new defensive coordinator, getting healthy at key starting positions, and now adding Miller, it's time for this defense to disrupt even the best competition.
The built-in advantage that this defense should be capitalizing on is playing with a lead more often than not, and quite frankly, the knowledge that holding teams below 30 points should do it most weeks.
Quoting PFF, "Stafford currently leads the league in EPA per play by a margin of 0.2, which translates to roughly two standard deviations over a season."
My preference is not to discuss the three little letters until after Thanksgiving, but it's no wonder why that service and many others see Stafford as a heavy MVP favorite.
Don't Bother Me
There is one pesky fly in the ointment, and PFF is responsible for that, too. Despite their MVP projections, they currently grade Stafford's performance behind 11 other NFL quarterbacks in 2021.
How could he win the top individual honor in the sport from the middle of his position group?
If you're familiar with the service's approach, it's actually not too difficult to reconcile – a nuisance though it may be. For more context, follow this brief Twitter thread with PFF Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo from earlier this week.
The long and short of it is, Stafford's quickly become an elite system quarterback with the Rams. Just embrace the paradox.
Down the (Tanne)hill
One of the signal-callers ahead of Stafford (for now) is this week's counterpart, Ryan Tannehill, who grades out fourth among quarterbacks despite some serious regression from 2020.
Last year, he passed for a career-best 33 touchdowns with a career-low interception rate.
In 2021, his pick rate has spiked to its highest levels with the Titans, his adjusted net yards per attempt are at Tennessee-lows, and he's already taken as many sacks this season (24) as all of last year.
As my colleague D'Marco Farr astutely summarized this week, the Titans offense and its offensive line in particular are built to go forward, not back.
Heavy Is the Head That Wears the Crown
And those Tannehill trends are all from an eight-game sample size before the loss of King Henry.
There are endless ways to attempt to quantify the loss of the NFL's leading rusher and what he means to this offense. Perhaps my favorite is that his yards AFTER CONTACT ALONE are still enough to lead the league in rushing in 2021 by a healthy margin.
And yet, the Titans managed to notch a couple of impressive wins the past two weeks while Henry was performing well below full strength.
That creates an unparalleled case study over the next few months for what a running back means to a modern NFL offense.
Fight to the Finish
If you're familiar with this column, we don't put a ton of stock in that Sean McVay halftime streak, but at 43-0 when leading at the break, we'll acknowledge it this week.
But only for one reason: Tennessee is uniquely equipped to ruin it if the Rams aren't careful.
According to SI.com’s John Glennon, the Titans share the NFL lead with three comeback wins after trailing in the fourth quarter this year. They've won twice in overtime. And safety Kevin Byard told Albert Breer that his group imposes its will on teams early with the intention of reaping late-game dividends.
Expect a twelve-round brawl on Sunday, not a two-quarter game. The Rams need to be ready for the most physical and enduring opponent they've faced to date.
Finally, if you're able to be there in person in Inglewood, the Rams are honoring Isaac Bruce as he receives his Hall of Fame Ring. There will be a pregame ceremony in American Airlines Plaza, displaying busts of the franchise legends.
That got me thinking about the individual resumes on the Tennessee and Los Angeles rosters. What an incredible array of career accomplishments.
I hope you'll agree that Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Julio Jones and Adrian Peterson are ticketed for Canton.
I'd put Jalen Ramsey and Derrick Henry (who unfortunately won't dress) as well-on-their-way.
And firmly in contention, with the potential to find their way with a strong finish to their careers, and hopefully a title: Andrew Whitworth, Johnny Hekker, and Matthew Stafford. A nod to Taylor Lewan, too.
This is a special game for Sunday Night Football, and who would mind if it was the first of two meetings this season between the Titans and Rams?