The Rams looked like they were about to turn around their disappointing 2022 NFL season in Tampa on Sunday. But giving Tom Brady and the Buccaneers 44 seconds too many kept Los Angeles from getting to a 4-4 record.
At 3-5, the reigning Super Bowl champions now have an uphill battle just to return to the playoffs coming out of Week 9.
Sean McVay’s team had hoped to play better offense after a much-needed Week 7 bye, but a lopsided 31-14 loss to the 49ers was followed by 16-13 heartbreak against the Buccaneers. The Rams are now averaging only 16.4 points per game. They averaged 27.1 points last season.
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Scoring enough to win didn’t used to be a problem in Los Angeles. Now it’s a major obstacle that can deny the Rams sneaking back into the playoffs as a wild card.
The Rams won the NFC West last season. Now they are third in the division behind the surprising 6-3 Seahawks, whom they have yet to play, and the 4-4 49ers, who have already beaten them twice. They’re only a half-game ahead of the 3-5 Cardinals, another 2021 playoff team that has made a dramatic fall.
While the Super Bowl 56-losing Bengals are managing their hangover better at 5-4, the champion Rams have been struggling. Here’s breaking down why the Rams may not sober up in time and miss the playoffs for the first time in three years under McVay:
1. The schedule, past and future
The Rams are the hunted, and they have seen plenty of top hunters. Facing the Bills right away at home was brutal. The 49ers twice early also was rough, given their offense was out of sync and how Kyle Shanahan’s team typically owns McVay’s. The Bucs’ and Cowboys’ defenses also were too much for them in the other two of their five losses.
That’s a pretty strong run of formidable opponents. The wins have come against the Falcons and Panthers at home and the struggling Cardinals on the road. The Rams have won the games they were supposed to win and faded otherwise.
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Week 10 brings the Cardinals to Inglewood before back-to-back road challenges against the Saints and Chiefs. The Seahawks sandwich the remaining slate in Weeks 13 and 18. They also need to play Green Bay in Lambeau, Denver at home and the other Los Angeles team. Going 6-3 against all of that plus the Raiders in Week 14 will be difficult for the Rams. That would just get them to 9-8, a shaky bet to just get the No. 7 seed.
2. The teams ahead of them, in the division and conference
The Rams are in the 10th in the NFC playoff race for now after Week 9, behind at least the 4-5 Falcons and 4-5 Commanders and depending on what the Saints do Monday night. The 49ers, who hold the tiebreaker over the Rams, are No. 7 and a stronger wild card in the making.
The Cowboys, who own the top wild card at 6-2, also beat the Rams and are up three games on them. The No.6 Giants don’t play the Rams, but they’re also 6-2. Both Washington and Atlanta have easier finishing schedules than Los Angeles and they play each other. To have any chance, the Rams to get to .500 by sweeping the Cardinals and beating the Saints in the next two weeks.
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Because of where the Cowboys, Giants, Seahawks and 49ers already are ahead of the Rams, 10-7 with a lot of help seems like the absolute minimum record to punch a playoff ticket.
3. The one-dimensional offense, in play-calling and personnel
The Rams cannot run the ball with any consistently with its combination of Darrell Henderson Jr., Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown as they desperately wait for rookie Kyren Williams to suddenly save the backfield. Their offensive line play remains poor, equally shaky in run blocking and pass protection.
That has created relentless passing volume for Matthew Stafford while he’s under duress. The Rams went into Tampa No. 2 in passing rate at 65.9 percent. Stafford is averaging 39 dropbacks per game. He’s also throwing to wide receiver Cooper Kupp 33 percent of the time with all this other targets getting inconsistent work.
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The Rams have become a predictable offense, a shocking development under McVay. They are highly dependent on Kupp dominating his matchups as a receiver, and sometimes runner. They can’t get anyone else involved the short, intermediate or deep passing game. And Stafford is easier to defend because he can’t buy time or extend plays like more athletic passers.
4. The thin defense, up front and on the back end
Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey have gotten some help on the second level from linebacker Bobby Wagner. Those guys are doing their best to carry the defense with deficiencies on all three levels around them.
Donald is needing to be one-man wrecking crew on the defensive line with A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines providing average play, at best. Wagner has good coverage support from Ernest Jones, but Leonard Floyd and Justin Hollins have been disappointing on the edges without Von Miller.
The Rams’ corner play has been shaky away from and behind Ramsey. Rookie Derion Kendrick, who was called for the key pass interference penalty against the Buccaneers, has been the biggest culprit.
Donald and Ramsey can still blow up a game plan and they nearly willed the Rams to a win over the Bucs, despite another whiff by the offense. But the post-Super Bowl holes in the defense look much bigger when there’s little margin for error.
The Rams are simply not as good all around as they were last season. They can’t just flip a switch and find that Super mojo. They had the usual flurry of departures and there’s no Miller or Odell Beckham Jr. plug-and-play solution out there past midseason.
LA will simply need to play itself out of it with McVay. He will make the most of Stafford and what else he has, but after last season’s high ceiling, the current state of his team adds up to a limited floor.