Round three is here.
The Los Angeles Rams will host the Arizona Cardinals for the third meeting of the season with each visiting team winning the contest in their previous two encounters.
The Rams are coming off a gut-punching overtime loss to the 49ers, but have won four of their last five games. In a different direction, the Cardinals are in a state of disarray, having lost four of the last five games after getting off to an NFL-best 7-1 start.
Here are the top storylines to follow ahead of the Wild Card Round matchup, featuring two divisional foes:
1. Which Matthew Stafford will show up?
Stafford's regular-season campaign was full of peaks and valleys. He finished the NFL's first 18 week season throwing for the third-most passing yards (4,886) and second-most touchdowns (41).
But the Rams' veteran passer also had his share of head-scratching throws, committing 17 interceptions, tied for the most in the NFL. Stafford has thrown an interception in each of his last four games, including three that featured two or more turnovers.
Fortunately for the Rams, they've gone 3-1 over that four-week stretch. But the playoffs are on the horizon and giving away the football at an alarming rate isn't nearly as feasible to overcome when facing higher-caliber teams such as those in the postseason. Stafford is a gifted passer but ensuring he doesn’t give away scoring opportunities is an element he must fix or the Rams' chances of stacking wins in the playoffs will go crashing down. The Rams will go as far as Stafford takes them.
2. Battle in the trenches
The Rams owned the battle in the trenches when the Rams and Cardinals met last in Week 14. The defensive front of the Rams recorded a staggering 40 quarterback pressures on Kyler Murray's 49 dropbacks during their meeting in mid-December. Aaron Donald was the ultimate difference-maker, busting through double teams which led to a three-sack performance.
But the Rams offensive line will need to hold up their end of the bargain. They’ve played better in more instances in which they performed worse. But last week's efforts of protecting Stafford in pass-protection did cause reason for concern. Stafford hit the turf five times, while the 49ers' pass rush logged 28 quarterback pressures, leading to erratic throws.
For the Rams to repeat the success they had in Week 14, they must win the clash at the line of scrimmage.
3. How will the Rams' banged-up secondary fare?
The Rams will be without its defensive signal-caller Jordan Fuller as he'll miss the remainder of the season with an ankle injury. Safety Taylor Rapp currently sits in concussion protocol, putting his game status in jeopardy. And cornerback Darious Williams is being further evaluated for a shoulder injury.
That would inherently call for larger roles from safeties Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess, while David Long Jr. would be asked to step up in the event that Williams is unable to suit up on Monday. The Rams also went ahead and signed Eric Weddle out of retirement, adding him to their practice squad and signed Jake Gervase to the active roster on Wednesday.
Certainly, the Rams have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who they move all over the field, to create havoc for opposing offenses. But depth players of the Rams that carry little to no playoff experience could be penciled into significant roles in the wake of filling the injury void.
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Season Records: Rams (12-5), Cardinals (11-6)
Previous Meeting: Rams defeated the Cardinals 30-23 in Week 14.
Odds: Rams -4
Key Stat: Rams lead the series over the Cardinals 48-39-2.
Keep An Eye On: What kind of personnel do the Rams roll out in their secondary on game-day and how do they fare?
Rams' Key To Victory: Stafford must end the interception streak.
Date/Time: Sunday, Jan. 17 at 5:15 p.m. PT
Location: SoFi Stadium (Inglewood, California)
Radio: 93.1 JACK FM
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