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The Rams’ 9-7 nightmare would be Arizona’s 9-7 dream

Two coaches fighting for respect in the finale

NFL: DEC 29 Cardinals at Rams

When the NFL’s 2020 schedule was released, Rams fans saw one particular December matchup that stood out above all else: “Will Week 16 against the Seahawks be the game of the season?”

For an extended moment, it was. But after losing to both the Jets and the Seahawks in consecutive weeks, Los Angeles finds itself in a “you-really-should-win” if not a “must-win” situation in Week 17 against the Cardinals that few expected after the Rams had won four of five games coming out of the midseason bye week.

A win over Arizona means that LA will be the fifth or sixth seed in the NFC, either traveling to face the winner of the NFC East or whichever division title holder comes away with the three seed.

More importantly, a win means that the Rams finish 10-6 and not sputtering to the same 9-7 record that Sean McVay was probably ashamed of in 2019. Many coaches and organizations would be elated with a winning record of any kind — in fact, I’m getting to one example momentarily — but when a franchise goes 24-8 with a Super Bowl appearance in the beginning of a tenure, it’s harder to swallow the same 9-7 records that Jeff Fisher would have had banners made for.

If the Rams enter the playoffs at 9-7, they will have lost four of their last six games, including three losses within the division and the fourth coming at home against an opponent that had been 0-13 prior to the contest. Few will care to note that McVay had to start backup John Wolford in the finale because many will be quick to note that Jared Goff led them to no better than 9-6 anyway.

The Rams’ issues this season had little to do with injuries.

And if the Rams miss the playoffs at 9-7 — a loss and a win by the Chicago Bears over the Green Bay Packers would do just that — then nobody in the organization will even get a chance to redeem this season’s performance for another nine months.

But 9-7 is the same record that will save the Cardinals season.

Two years ago, Arizona went 3-13 under one-time head coach Steve Wilks and one-time starting quarterback Josh Rosen. The Cardinals ranked 32nd in: points, yards, first downs, passing yards, rushing yards, yards per pass, yards per rush, yards per drive and points per drive.

The franchise made the radical decision to fire Wilks and trade Rosen, replacing them with a failed college coach at a middling program and arguably the shortest non-running back to ever be called a “franchise player.” We should have always expected Arizona’s offense to regress in 2019, but Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray did a little bit more than that, elevating the Cardinals to 16th in scoring, 21st in yards, ninth in first downs, 10th in rushing yards, second in yards per carry and 14th in points per drive in 2019.

The Cards only went 5-10-1, but had 14-point victories over the Browns and Seahawks late in the season and they nearly sent McVay to 8-8 in Week 17 with a 31-24 defeat at the hands of Los Angeles. Murray played well in year one despite his top two options being Late-stage Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk.

Murray’s final stat line from his rookie season: 349-of-542, 3,722 yards, 20 TD, 12 INT, 6.9 Y/A, 48 sacks taken, 544 rushing yards, 4 TD, 5 fumbles

Jared Goff’s stat line in 2020: 370-of-552, 3,952 yards, 20 TD, 13 INT, 7.2 Y/A, 23 sacks taken, 99 rushing yards, 4 TD, 7 fumbles

Had the Cardinals hung in with the players that they already had, perhaps if they had drafted a receiver in the first or second round, or dealt for Brandin Cooks, then expectations may have continued to balance around the idea that “Arizona is building something.” But it felt like a final brick when the Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins in March, even if the cost to acquire him was relatively low.

Bill Barnwell of ESPN’s only criticism of the deal for Arizona is that they had dedicated too many resources to their offense. Cardinals GM Steve Keim called Hopkins a “game-changer” and Hopkins said that the expectation was to win a Super Bowl championship. Team president Michael Bidwell said, “We’ve really weaponized this offense of Kliff Kingsbury.”

Danny Kelly of The Ringer said that the deal “rapidly accelerates the Cardinals’ timeline.”

I can’t imagine that anyone wrote that Arizona “would improve a little bit offensively” after dealing for Hopkins and the organization only hesitated slightly before extending him through 2024 just prior to the season starting. The Cardinals will pay Hopkins a $12.5 million cap hit in 2021 and a $25 million cap hit in 2022.

Through 15 games, Hopkins has justified the move on an individual level — 111 catches for 1,372 yards and six touchdowns, plus three fumbles — but Arizona’s offense has fallen on hard times lately.

The Cardinals started the season 5-2 with a 37-34 win over the Seattle Seahawks as the cream cheese frosting on a redbird cake. Following their dramatic “hail Murray” win over the Bills two games later, Arizona was 6-3 and sixth in scoring.

I’m sure it’s nothing more than a narrative burning a hole in my brain cells, but is there anything worse for a team than a dramatic win?

In the six games since Murray-to-Hopkins became immortalized in highlight reels of the 2020 season forever, the Cardinals are 2-4 and rank 17th in scoring — one fewer point in that period of time than the Los Angeles Rams. While many parroted the same idea by Barnwell that Arizona’s offense was far and away better than their defense, the two sides are roughly equal by now and that’s why they’re one loss away from finishing 8-8.

A wild card berth that seemed like a lock six weeks ago is only a flickering flame because the NFC presented almost nothing in the way of competition and the Cardinals’ only two victories since Hopkins caught that pass over three Buffalo defenders are against the Giants and Eagles.

Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, the quarterback who succeeded Murray at Oklahoma but not as a premium draft prospect, nearly matched Murray step-for-step and didn’t even have an elite receiver to throw to that day.

Then last week, with a chance to secure a winning record, the Cardinals allowed 183 rushing yards to 49ers backup Jeff Wilson, and three touchdowns to third-string quarterback C.J. Beathard in a 20-12 loss at home. Yes, the defense had its embarrassments, but the offense only managed 12 points and the reason that Arizona traded for Hopkins is so that they could compete against the defenses of the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams.

The Cardinals are second in total yards and third in rushing yards, but their scoring is only marginally better than it was without Hopkins and they rank 12th in points allowed per drive — only a hair worse than being 10th in points per drive on offense. The Arizona Cardinals are a better team than they were with Wilks and Rosen and Murray gives them a rushing attack that few offenses have at the quarterback position, but without a second viable threat at receiver or tight end, all the Hopkins acquisition seems to have done to their passing offense at this point is make it one-dimensional.

Not good for a team that has spent 2018, 2019 and 2020 second round picks at wide receiver. And those are three of the best wide receiver classes — ever.

A win over the Rams in Week 17 and the Cardinals will be the six or seventh seed in the NFC, potentially facing the Seahawks (a team they’ve proven they can handle), Saints or Packers. Kingsbury can boast a wild card appearance, if not a wild card win. Murray can gain playoff experience a year before Arizona is probably in a position to actually compete — if they make the right moves this offseason.

A loss and all they’re left with is the opportunity to start planning those moves early.

For the Rams, a win means a reminder that they can win. It also means that they can win with backups at quarterback and running back, much like what San Francisco experienced on Sunday against Arizona. It means an improvement on 2019’s record and a chance to advance in the postseason, potentially even to the point where Andrew Whitworth, Jared Goff and Cam Akers can return.

The best case scenario with a loss is that they enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. The worst case scenario is that they enter the offseason on a three-game losing streak. With cap issues and no first, fourth or fifth round pick.

Rams-Seahawks was meant to be the one with the stakes, and it was. But their loss to the Jets and Arizona’s loss to Beathard raised Week 17 up even more for both of these franchises. Not just for one day, but maybe for the next nine months.