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Wild Card Preview: Rams playoff journey begins under the lights at SoFi Stadium

The 2021 Los Angeles Rams did it in October. Then, they did it again in December.

Now, their ultimate goal comes down to putting together another four-game winning streak, this time against the best competition the NFL has to offer.

It's a journey that starts – and conceivably ends – at SoFi Stadium.

It took the better part of a calendar year, 17 games, and 12 victories to earn this opportunity – to play into the NFL's second season and host an NFC playoff contest.

It only takes four more wins to be remembered forever.

A Season of Firsts

If we go back in time, the story of the Rams 2021 campaign really began with the blockbuster trade for Matthew Stafford, and the paradox of exchanging Jared Goff – the youngest NFC Champion quarterback in league history, who had regressed in the two seasons that followed – for a 12-year veteran without a postseason win on his resume.

So far, it's gone according to plan. The Rams were exponentially more explosive on offense, scored more points, were more efficient, and won the West.

And they were this close to capitalizing at home in Week 18 and finishing Stafford's first regular season as a Ram as the NFC's two-seed, tied for the most wins in the NFL. It was not to be. And the road to the Super Bowl got incrementally more difficult as a result.

Now it's go time: Stafford needs to break through, and the Rams collectively need to deliver his first playoff win.

You've heard this narrative a lot this week (and this year), I'm sure.

Per Elias, Stafford's 323 career touchdown passes are the most in NFL history without prevailing in a postseason game. 86 wins as a starter trails only Jim Hart (87), as well.

The good news is, Stafford's checked off a bunch of firsts this season as a Ram, including his first division title – prevailing in the best division in football, at that – to deliver this home playoff game.

And by the way, the other quarterback – Kyler Murray – is also seeking his first playoff win. The difference, of course, is that this will be his first taste of the NFL postseason.

The Cards You're Dealt

Of the six Wild Card games, five are regular season rematches (49ers and Cowboys is the only "fresh" matchup), so the Rams and Cardinals aren't alone in their familiarity.

Without legendary J.J. Watt, the Arizona defense fell off a cliff. The Cardinals allowed the fewest points per game in the NFL through seven weeks. But since the future Hall of Famer's injury, they've allowed the highest QBR in the league and surrendered nearly nine more points per game, per ESPN research. Watt may return on Monday.

Without DeAndre Hopkins, their offense has slipped, too. The Cardinals were 8-2, scoring better than 30 per week when Hopkins played this season. Those figures dipped to 21 points per game when he did not. Hopkins won't be back in time for the Wild Card collision at SoFi Stadium.

Arizona finished the regular season in a tailspin that the Rams initiated back in Week 14, another Monday Night affair. The Cardinals have only won once since then – a road triumph at Dallas, of all places.

But do not underestimate them.

This is largely the same group that stunned the Rams in Week 4. The same bunch that had second-and-goal from the L.A. four-yard line with a chance to take a 10-0 lead in Week 14.

Man Up

And Murray's more than capable of making magic. He's gone for over 750 yards against the Rams this year.

Per Next Gen Stats, Murray led the NFL in QBR versus zone coverage this season, and the Rams defense played zone at the second-highest rate in the NFL. So while Murray surely wasn't angling for another dance with Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, Greg Gaines, and Von Miller, there's a case to be made that this matchup plays into his preferences.

Somewhat of a similar story for Stafford against the Arizona defense.

His numbers weren't as strong in the back half of the schedule, as opponents stopped blitzing him and instead played coverage to tamp down L.A.'s explosive passing game. Since Week 9, Stafford's been blitzed at the second-lowest rate in the league, nearly half the rate he faced the first eight weeks, according to ESPN research.

Fortunately for the Rams, the Cardinals blitz at the third-highest rate in the league this season. Stafford's 139.6 passer rating against extra rushers this season is the highest in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016), per NFL research.

Road Field Advantage?

This strange narrative was percolating when we traveled to Glendale in December, but now it's even more pronounced. The Cardinals understandably might be relieved to be the road team in this Wild Card game.

They boast the best away record in the league (8-1), and two of those wins were against division rivals with Colt McCoy filling in behind center.

Conversely, the Cardinals finished just 3-5 in their building, averaging nearly seven points per game fewer inside State Farm Stadium.

And albeit in a much smaller sample size, the road team did win both regular season meetings between the Rams and Cardinals in 2021.

So, yes, there's a trend that needs to be reversed on Monday.

Age Is Just a (Big) Number

After season after season of being one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, you wake up and the Rams have the oldest active roster in the playoffs, according to average age.

And that's before activating formerly retired, 37-year-old safety Eric Weddle!

The Quadruple Crown

In an ongoing effort to say something new about Cooper Kupp, I present to you the Quadruple Crown.

The catches, yards, and touchdowns you’re well aware of.

But during a season in which he had the second most receptions and receiving yards in NFL history, Pro Football Focus also scored 357 run blocking reps for Kupp – top five among receivers. That's 21 per game. And he graded out at an admirable 73.5, better than any peer with at least 250 such opportunities.

To me, it's the most remarkable element of the year he put together.


Here's a brief reminder that Aaron Donald isn't going to win Defensive Player of the Year, simply because of voter fatigue and being measured against the ridiculously high bar he's set for himself.

I will acknowledge he's coming off the lowest-graded game of his season. But back in Week 14 against these Cardinals, he took over – from the first rush, to the last.

Seven pressures, three sacks and a batted pass that led to a red zone interception.

We said it at the outset of the season, and it bears repeating here. Let someone else have the NFL honors this year. The only thing Donald's trophy case needs is a ring.

Injuries and Health

To tie the last two sections together, you have to be psyched about the opportunity in front of this team. Because we've all shared the sentiment, "Here's hoping the Rams don't ever finish another season without Kupp in uniform."

If you're a Rams fan, you know that Super Bowl LIII might have been different had Kupp played. Like me, you probably believe that the Divisional loss at Green Bay could have looked different had he dressed, too. Likewise, if Donald had been 100 percent.

So while I'm heartbroken that Robert Woods doesn't get to attack this postseason run, and that the loss of Jordan Fuller added injury to insult last weekend, the nucleus of the Rams is still ready to rock.

Stafford, Kupp, the entire offensive line, Tyler Higbee, Odell Beckham Jr.

And now Cam Akers back, with a game under his belt.

Donald, Miller, Floyd, Gaines, and Jalen Ramsey are set to chase a championship on defense.

This is a roster the Rams could have only dreamed of bringing to Wild Card weekend after a 17-game gauntlet.

They've got a great look at this thing and all the personnel they need to square up with any opponent in the field.

Look through photos of Los Angeles Rams players on the practice field as they prepare for a Wild Card matchup against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football.

Revenge Tour

Finally, I love an astute Twitter submission as much as anyone, so shout out to Dr. Smith for this one.

Indeed, it is possible for the Rams to avenge all five 2021 losses on their way to a Lombardi Trophy.

First, the Eagles and 49ers would have to pull off road upsets on Wild Card Sunday.

Then, the Rams take the rubber match with the Cardinals on Monday. (One.)

That would give Los Angeles the rematch with San Francisco at SoFi Stadium next week. (Two and three.)

If the Packers were to hold serve in their Divisional game, it'd be off to Lambeau for the NFC Championship. (Four.)

And lastly, should Tennessee hold the bracket in the AFC, we'd be treated to a Super Bowl XXXIV rematch between the Titans and Rams. (Five.)

Four wins against the four teams that beat L.A. a combined five times this season. No scores left to settle; rings for everyone.

Not as ridiculous as it seems. The low seeds shocking the world on Sunday would be the biggest hurdle. Most of the rest, the Rams could handle themselves.

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