Overview: This is essentially a must-win game for the Los Angeles Rams. Not so much because of their playoff standing. The NFC West is likely out of reach at this point, and even a loss on Sunday would not mathematically kill their chances of a wildcard spot.
But let's be honest, the last few weeks have been downright ugly, and if the Rams don't turn things around on Sunday, it's hard to determine if they can. If they can't defeat a 2-9 team with a rookie quarterback at home, it's a reach to say that things will get better on the road next week against an Arizona team that many consider being the best in the NFL.
The Rams NEED to win this game to be a credible contender. Even a win (by itself) won't re-establish the team's earlier status as a Super Bowl contender, but it will at least keep hope alive for the 2021 season.
And by "WIN," we don't mean a last-second field goal for a one-point win, although that might at least keep the Rams playoff deathwatch on hold for another week. They don't necessarily need to blow the Jaguars out, but a double-digit victory with some strong performances on both sides of the ball would be excellent.
The Rams must play better in this game over the last month or so, or this season will likely be a lost cause. It's that simple.
Rams Offense vs. Jags Defense: A must question to be asked, "What in the #!&%! is wrong with Matthew Stafford?" Because something doesn't seem right, no matter what anybody says.
It's not so much his passing yards/touchdowns. In last week's loss to the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers only out-passed Stafford by five yards. Stafford did show glimpses of the guy we saw earlier this season after a long touchdown pass to Odell Beckham was a thing of beauty. Cooper Kupp notched 97 yards in receptions. At times, Stafford resembled the like of an MVP contender, threading the needle for completions that not many NFL quarterbacks can succeed.
Unfortunately, we also saw the Stafford that we had seen way too much of in recent weeks. A pick-six, a pass that he should never have thrown. A fumble—again—deep in Rams territory led to another Packer's touchdown. Stafford missed a wide-open Tyler Higbee for what would have been a first down. And there were numerous others too that could be listed here.
Stafford insists that while he's a little banged up (as everyone is this time of year), his injuries are not impacting how he plays. We aren't sure that we believe that. The ball seems to keep sailing in some of his incompletions/picks in ways that seem a little odd. At other times, it looks like he is trying to force plays that aren't there or that he does not see the field. The panic fumbles were deep in Ram territory that continues happening for no apparent reason.
Coach McVay has rushed to Stafford's defense, but the bottom line is that he hasn't been good enough over the past month. Shades of Jared Goff, 2020.
In a way, it would almost be reassuring if injuries were affecting his performance. Because if HE is the quarterback to lead the Rams into the near future, that's a problem.
So on to the Jacksonville Jaguars defense; they aren't bad for a 2-9 team on this side of the ball, ranking 20th in overall defense. They are 21st against the run, giving up an average of 115 yards per game. Jacksonville is low-middle of the pack (18th) in passing defense, surrendering an average of 244 yards per game.
This defense also held the allegedly high-powered Buffalo Bills offense to a mere 6 points in an upset win a few weeks back. So they can play well, especially if Stafford and the Rams keep celebrating the holidays by giving away the football, as has been the case recently.
Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr is questionable with a hip pointer, but both he and McVay say they expect him to play. Running back Darrell Henderson is listed as a game-time decision. If he can't go, or maybe even if he can, the Rams may need to make a roster move at running back, as Sony Michel is the only 100 percent healthy running back on the game-day roster at this moment, the third running back, Buddy Howell, is out with an injury.
With a foot injury, the Rams starting right tackle Rob Havenstein is also questionable. The Jags do have some credible players on this side of the ball. In the upset win over Buffalo, EDGE rusher Josh Allen haunted the Bills player of the same name entirely the whole game. Allen is a legit outstanding player who would be a household name on a better team. He'll likely face off against Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth; Jacksonville probably needs to win to have a chance. Allen is Jacksonville's only real pass-rushing threat. However, if he can regularly get in the Rams backfield and apply pressure to put Stafford into some bad situations, this game could differ from most expectations. Allen can be a game-changer, as he showed against the Bills. His 5.5 sacks on the season don't tell the entire story because often he is double-teamed.
Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack is a well-regarded player with a bit of an off-year, especially against the run.
The Jags will be without Shaq Griffin, whom the Rams know well from his days as a Seattle Seahawk. Griffin likely would have taken on OBJ if both had been healthy, but you can scratch that matchup for this week. Assuming he plays, Beckham can overcome a lack of practice time this week to take advantage of Griffin's absence remains to be seen.
Of course, we will check this box for the Rams offense, but if they go into turnover mode—again—who knows. The Jag's defense is not awful. Just ask Josh Allen, the quarterback.
Rams Defense vs. Jags Offense: The offensive side of the ball is where the Jaguars struggle, averaging about 15 points a game. Only the Houston Texans score fewer points than the Jaguars. Rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence is physically gifted, but he also is going through the usual rookie growing pains, having just nine touchdown passes versus ten picks. In fairness, he doesn't have much to work with in terms of weapons. His best running back, James Robinson, is listed as questionable for this game with leg and heal injuries. You don't want Lawrence exposed to Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd in the pass rush too often if you are Jacksonville. We guess that Robinson will play; whether he will be at full strength is another question.
The Jags do have a legit weapon at the wide receiver position. Laviska Shenault has 45 receptions for 448 yards paces the Jags receivers. His longest reception is 58 yards, and he is the one player that you worry about as a potential "big-play threat." He's not lightning fast, but neither is Cooper Kupp, but he plays well. At six-foot-1 and 227 pounds, he's a physical player who can win matchups and move the chains. The Rams have been moving Jalen Ramsey around in coverage; however, he's the only Rams corner who regularly has the physicality to go head-to-head with Shenault, so we think they might get matched up quite a bit on Sunday.
Carlos Hyde will likely get the bulk of the work in the ground game if Robinson can't go. Hyde is a functional NFL back, but he lacks Robinson's considerable playability. On the other hand, the Rams rush defense hasn't been "all that's this season. They have been downright dismal at times, as they were in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers a couple of weeks ago.
We expect the Jags to try to emulate the Niners and go "ground and pound." The Rams did hold Green Bay to a decent 91 yards on the ground last week, and having to pay attention to Trevor Lawrence and the Jags passing game is not the same thing the Rams faced the previous week. Even so, if they get mauled and pushed around by the Jacksonville ground game, a la San Francisco, this could be yet another horrid outing for the Rams. It will also make the hot seat under defensive coordinator Raheem Morris—which is already pretty uncomfortable—possibly not survivable. We don't think Morris will get dismissed during the season, but he is coaching for his job at this point.
Special Teams: We would rather not talk about the Rams special teams; other than kicker Matt Gay is pretty good.
Everything else? Not so much.
Who knows what the Rams will do in the punt return game. J.J. Koski contributed a critical fumble last week against Green Bay. We really don't like Cooper Kupp returning punts, but he may end up doing it again by default.
We talked about Raheem Morris being on the hot seat. The guess here is that special teams coach Joe DeCamillis is probably gone after this season unless the Rams show radical improvement here. The special team is a huge problem area, and they don't seem to be getting any better.
Coaching: The unthinkable is starting to be thought about in Los Angeles, namely whether Sean McVay is the boy genius that everyone has considered him to be over the last few years. We don't think his job is in jeopardy this season, but if the Rams tank the rest of the way and miss the playoffs, who knows? What is probably more likely is a wholesale reshuffling of his coaching staff unless the team can rally and make a postseason run. The talent is in place to do that. Coaching is another question.
Even so, Urban Meyer has not exactly set the world on fire, and his job is likely very much in jeopardy. Right now, he looks like another hotshot college coach who just couldn't cut it in the NFL.
We will check the box for the Rams, but that is mostly by default in this case.
Final Prediction: The usual platitudes about "not taking a losing team lightly' should not apply here because this is a big game for the Rams, with their season possibly on the line. They are favored by 13, and they should win.
But, for the sake of argument, if the Jags can come out and run the ball, eat the clock with long drives and get help from some Ram turnovers, an upset could happen. We've seen that movie way too often in recent weeks with the Rams.
We hope the Rams play with a sense of urgency and return to the form they showed earlier this season. Stafford has to be better, special teams have to play better, and the rush defense should be lights out.
If that happens, hello 8-4. Goodbye to playing the Super Bowl at home next February if it doesn't.
We are going to hope for the best.
Rams 34 Jags 21