Expert NFL Handicapping: Can Los Angeles Rams Get Back on Track?
Let's start with the most important thing to remember when talking about the L.A. Rams right now. The team is 11-3 and has remaining games against Arizona and San Francisco, so they are well positioned to have a first-round bye as the second seed in the playoffs. We are not on the edge of disaster or anything. But there is no denying that this team has not been the same since the win over Kansas City in what was likely the best Monday night game ever played. Since then they only barely beat Detroit - and making Detroit look good is very tough to do right now - and lost to Chicago and Philadelphia. Earlier in the year they looked completely unstoppable. Now they look mortal.
Every team goes through rough spots at some point, and it's better to hit the low point now than in the playoffs, but it is not a good time to be a Ram - or a Rams bettor for that matter. Let's look at what is going on and what it means for the rest of the season and into the postseason:
Jared Goff: When Goff was drafted out of Cal, I was highly, highly skeptical. And for a while it appeared that I was right to be. But then he figured things out, looked like a walking cheat code, and I was getting ready to eat my words. But suddenly Goff has turned into pretty much the QB I expected him to be. And that's not good.
In his last three games he has thrown just one touchdown pass and has been picked off seven times and is averaging almost four yards per attempt less than he was through the first 11 games. He has lost his swagger, it doesn't look like he has enough time in the pocket, and little seems to be working.
There are issues that can be pointed at - his protection isn't as good as it was, and he lost security blanket Cooper Kupp for the season after eight games. But the guy seemed like a touchdown scoring robot against Kansas City, and he has looked like me out there since. It's a problem and one without a clear solution. Maybe he's banged up. Maybe he's way too deep into his own head. Maybe opponents have suddenly figured him out. Maybe he has a tell that people are exploiting now. Or maybe his deal with the devil ran out, and he has to play on his own merit now. More likely, though, it seems as if Detroit figured out that a zone defense could limit big plays for the Rams, and the next two teams took the same approach. Information flows fast in this league, so once one team figures something out they all have. Now it's up to Goff and Sean McVay to become the innovators again. And they can - this 2018 offense has not just been a continuation of what worked in 2017, so they are very capable of changing and adjusting.
Offensive line: If the protection hasn't been as good as Goff needs lately, then obviously the line could be to blame. And looking at that brings up one of the more interesting theories I have seen lately. The Rams have had remarkable consistency up front. The same starting five have played in every game and have taken the bulk of the snaps. It's a solid enough unit, but on a very young team it is far from the youngest group. It is possible that the long season has started to bang them up and wear them down? If so, then that is a tough thing to bounce back from, and they don't really have the depth to make a big change in this front - at least not any seasoned depth.
Emotions: This is the factor that is probably the most relevant. That Kansas City game was ridiculously hyped going into it. It was the circled game of the season - the one that, for weeks, seemed like it was setting up as a Super Bowl preview and a living video game. Then the drama of moving it from Mexico City to L.A. at the last minute only added to the hype and attention. And, if anything, the game was better than anyone could have expected. It was brilliant. As good as NFL football can be. But it really meant nothing. It was a Week 11 inter-conference game for two teams that were all but locks to be playoff teams regardless of what happened. And the day after the game they just had to start getting ready for the next game. It felt like a Super Bowl, but players don't have to go back to work the day after a Super Bowl. It was a game perfectly set up for a letdown. And it seems like both teams have suffered through some general malaise since.
There is plenty of time to shake this off, and a game against the Cardinals this week could be just the ticket - nothing like beating a group of tackling dummies by about 400 to get your mojo back. But it will take some mental toughness to get back on track, and we don't yet know if this team has a lot of that when it matters. They didn't in the playoffs last year. And though they added a lot of veteran talent in the offseason, it wasn't the kind that provides massive leadership.
Can they get back on track? They are no worse than the second-best team in the NFC, and no worse than the third-best team overall. There window is there. They just have to decide if they are willing to do what it takes to step through it.
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