Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth has played a lot of NFL football. A two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler, Whitworth has spent 13 seasons in the professional trenches, year after year warding off the league's best pass rushers in one of the game's most physically demanding positions.
Much like the previous 199 regular season and seven postseason games protecting his quarterback and opening rushing lanes, Whitworth delivered in the Divisional round against the Cowboys. The Rams offensive line allowed just one quarterback hit and two tackles for loss. The Rams rushed for 273 yards.
When asked if the performance meant his O-line has peaked at the right time ahead of Sunday's NFC title game, the 37-year-old team captain addressed his team's season as a whole — starting with L.A.'s first two-game slide under head coach Sean McVay.
"[I]t's funny to sit here in the playoffs and felt like going into the Divisional round that we had to convince people that we were good being 13-3 and starting a season the way did — it's wild," Whitworth said. "I mean, we lost two games and then all of a sudden, it's like the world fell down."
The eldest Ram was correct on two fronts, the Rams were good through the first half of the season and into the bye week, and there was a lot of noise surrounding the club following the late-season losses — especially Whitworth's offense.
Early on, the Rams offense was buzzing and the O-line far from porous — Los Angeles put up five-straight games with at least 432 yards of offense from Weeks 2-6, and allowed just six sacks in Weeks 1-5. The Rams scored at least 30 points all but two times in the 11 games leading up to the Week 12 bye and lost just one game.
While Whitworth's aging offensive line has been healthy enough to start each game in 2018, the former LSU Tiger said the Week 12 bye was much-welcomed after 11 weeks of wear, tear, and winning.
The only problem was the Rams came off the bye cold.
"We had a bye in Week 12 and then we got an opportunity to kind of come back from that long stretch and were a little sluggish," Whitworth admitted, recalling two-week slump in Chicago and home against the Eagles. "Then we found our feet again and started feeling good and then we got to rest again all of the sudden. So, I think that, honestly for us — to me, I feel like it's the beginning of the season body-wise."
Whitworth's 13th NFL season was different. There was the hot start, the late bye week, the slump and soreness, and then his first-career playoff win. Now feeling fresh, just one more playoff win from Super Bowl LIII, Whitworth didn't say his team isn't peaking at the right time — he said his team is battle tested.
Just before the regular season's climax against the AFC finalist Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11, the Rams faced a non-football challenge like none other — two separate events, so close to home that the Rams couldn't help but face the consequences.
Whitworth and his Rams woke up on Thursday, Nov. 8 to reports of the tragic mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill minutes from the team's Thousand Oaks practice facility, and mere hours before taking the field in preparation for the Seahawks as smoke from nearby brush fires filled the sky.
Over the next few days, several Rams players, coaches and staff members were evacuated from their homes. The Rams beat the Seahawks in a close one at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and the team set off for Colorado Springs to prepare for a game at altitude against the Chiefs in Mexico City. The game was moved to Los Angeles, the Rams adjusted, and beat the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in the highest-scoring affair in club history.
The father of four and the Rams' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee led his team's effort in supporting community members who felt the effects of each tragedy, simultaneously leading his first-place football team to wins that proved critical to keeping pace with the NFC's other top team — the New Orleans Saints.
"Honestly, we feel like we've been through it," Whitworth said. "There's really not much adversity we haven't seen all year long, whether it's travel stuff or anything. So, I think we kind of feel like we were born for this moment and this opportunity."
The left tackle spoke for his team, but could say the same for himself. Whitworth will return to his home state of Louisiana to play to go to the Super Bowl — and in a stadium where he's experienced success. The veteran won three Class 5A Louisiana state championships in New Orleans' Superdome with a full head of hair at West Monroe High School. A few years down the road, Whitworth returned to the iconic stadium and won the 2003 BCS National Championship — starting in all 14 games as a sophomore.
Sixteen years later, the stage is set for Whitworth to win another game in the Big Easy. But this time it's at the end of a season that tested even the most-tenured L.A. Ram. After filing through his 13th professional campaign in front of the NFC Championship backdrop, Whitworth was asked a final question before continuing his Wednesday walk-thrus.
How is this a different team than the one that lost to the Saints in New Orleans in Week 9?
"It doesn't feel like, 'Oh man, we've got to go get lucky or we've got to have something go our way,'" Whitworth said. "I think we feel like, 'Hey, how can we go out this week, play the best game we can possibly play and see where it all stacks up when it's over.'"
"I think that's, really, the mentality we have this week is that — what is there to lose?"