The Arizona Cardinals head to Los Angeles on Monday night to face the Rams for a third time this season in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Both teams had to lose important Week 18 games to get to this matchup. The Rams failed to put four strong quarters -- and an overtime -- together against the 49ers, and the Cardinals had red-zone offense and run defense troubles once again against Seattle.
That was the Cardinals' fourth loss in five games.
The two NFC West foes have looked like they could beat anyone at their best this year, but they have struggled to find consistency down the stretch.
Arizona and Los Angeles also split their season series with the Cardinals winning on the road in Week 4 and the Rams doing the same in Week 14.
“I don’t really pay attention to the past," Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray said ahead of his first career playoff game. "I leave it in the past. None of those games really matter at all. Looking forward to Monday.”
SoFi Stadium | Monday, January 17, 2022 | 6:15 PM
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The Cardinals moved the ball at will in Week 4 in Los Angeles. They had five drives of 64 yards or more and scored four touchdowns and three field goals.
The offense was more inconsistent in Week 14 with two turnovers and seven penalties.
The key topics for Arizona's offense will be to avoid negative plays and convert in the red zone, two areas of difficulty recently.
The Cardinals committed the most penalties in the league over the final three weeks of the regular season and had the 10th-lowest red-zone conversion percentage.
Having close to a full arsenal could help.
All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins will not play as he recovers from knee surgery, but there are several players dealing with injuries who could. Running back Chase Edmonds, who has played in two games since Week 9, said he will suit up on Monday and had no injury status for the game on the Saturday injury report.
Edmonds gained 120 rushing yards in Week 4.
Running back James Conner and wide wide receiver Rondale Moore will be game-day decisions and could provide a boost if available.
“I don’t even know the last game that we had both (Edmonds and Conner)," Murray said. "It’s something we’ve had to deal with. We’ve had injuries, unfortunate ones, where you’re missing some of your best players . . . To have both of them back would definitely be crucial for us."
The Rams have a top-six defense in pass and rush defense-adjusted value over average, per Football Outsiders.
The Cardinals bested them with a balanced attack that stemmed from a strong rushing game. That opened up play-action and opportunities for Murray to take deep shots.
The Cardinals had Hopkins for both previous matchups, but the Rams did not have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey last time. He will make getting open tricky for a receiving corps already struggling to do so consistently without Hopkins.
However, the Rams won't have either starting safety Taylor Rapp or Jordan Fuller due to injuries.
The Cardinals struggled to protect Murray in Week 14, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald "wrecked" the game, as Edmonds put it. He had three sacks and three tackles for loss.
Doubling him has sometimes proven futile, and other times has opened doors for edge rushers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd.
"You really just want to try to stay on schedule, keep those guys on the field as many plays as possible," head coach Kliff Kingsbury said this week. "That’s really the only chance you have to try to slow down Donald and some of those pass rushers. Consistently making the routine plays, staying on schedule, extending drives is going to be a huge part of us trying to win the game.”
The Cardinals defense struggled to get pressure on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford last time.
He took advantage with 287 passing yards and three touchdowns. Stafford leads the NFL in interceptions with 17 this year, and getting him uncomfortable has been effective in forcing mistakes.
The Cardinals' defensive line could be getting a boost: defensive end J.J. Watt returned to practice after 10 weeks and will be a game-day decision on Monday.
The attention he draws can help open up lanes for pass rushers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden.
"We just got to get to Monday and see what his comfort level is and what he feels like and what we think he can he can do for us," Kingsbury said. "So we'll take it down to the wire with him."
The Cardinals have a beat-up cornerbacks corps. They have to face receivers Cooper Kupp -- who led the league in catches, receiving yards and touchdown grabs this year -- and Odell Beckham Jr.
Getting to Stafford, containing the run and making Los Angeles work out of third-and-longs will be the goal.
"That offense has a lot of eye candy in terms of showing you one thing and doing something off of it," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "It goes back to every man doing their job, so that there are no gaps in the defense."
The Cardinals and Rams have payed in the playoffs once before.
On Dec. 27, 1975, the L.A. Rams defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 35-23.
The game was played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the Cardinals fell behind 28-6 before cutting the deficit to two scores.
Last year's Week 17 game between the two team was playoff-like in its stakes. There were no fans in the crowd at SoFi Stadium to give it a playoff atmosphere, but the Cardinals needed a win to make the playoffs.
Murray, though, was out for most of the game with an ankle injury, and Arizona fell 18-7.
Players to watch
Someone has to step up and make plays on offense so it might as well be Kirk. Down the field or on quick passes, Kirk has the ability to find holes in the defense.
If Watt returns, he could help the Cardinals' rush defense and pass rush in a game they desperately need to thrive in both areas.
Anything the Cardinals want to accomplish happens first at the line of scrimmage. Hudson's experience and intelligence now looks to pay dividends against a tough Rams front in the playoffs.