Who has two thumbs and needs to prove himself against the New England Patriots? Jared Goff, obviously, and he better use at least four of those fingers on his right hand adjacent to the thumb if the LA Rams want to put up points against the Bill Belichick defense this time.
The Rams are 8-4 and in position to win the NFC West, something few people predicted (I did, but so what?), but first they must exorcise some of the demons that may have kept them from reaching their full potential in 2019 ... that being the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in which they only scored three points.
Goff has to be the first person worth mentioning in an article titled such as this, so let’s begin with him and then move onto three other players who will probably need to have desirable performances against New England — 6-6 but winners of four of their last five — if Los Angeles wants to stay atop the division for another week.
Jared Goff, QB
With Cam Akers as his lead back and the Cardinals as his opponent, Goff was able to “get on track” in Week 13 with 78% completions and no turnovers. The Rams offense was still not explosive and Goff’s limitations are perhaps more exposed when he plays well than when he doesn’t, but Los Angeles scored a season-high 38 points.
Now comes a test not from the west.
Akers is dealing with a shoulder injury that could keep him out of this game given the short week of rest, meaning that at least one piece of the puzzle could be out. Two, if we’re including Andrew Whitworth. The much bigger issue is that the Patriots dominated Goff and Sean McVay in their most recent meeting and Goff played his three worst games of this season against the two most solid pass defenses he’s faced, the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.
With the way they’ve played recently, New England may have an even better defense than those two franchises.
If Goff is accurate and avoids bad decisions, the Rams have a significant advantage. If he doesn’t, well, we’ve seen what happens then.
Darrell Henderson, RB
As noted, Akers could miss the game and that might mean increased reps for Henderson. It may also mean going back to an increased workload for Malcolm Brown. In any case, LA’s running backs probably need to be effective in order to increase Goff’s opportunities to be productive.
Henderson only had three carries last week but he broke out a 38-yard touchdown run. That and a 40-yarder against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 are his only runs of 20 yards or longer this season.
But maybe the Rams don’t need him to have 150 yards on 20 carries or anything like that. They could settle for him consistently winning off the edges and presenting himself as a threat worth tracking in the run game; he’s proven capable of that a few times this season but he’s also been ineffective a few times.
Aaron Donald, DL
As crazy as it seems to even mention Donald, we know that he wasn’t quite as dominant as he’s capable of in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots nearly two years ago. Donald has posted a share of one sack over four career playoff games and getting through New England’s elite offensive line interior could prove once again that he’s deserving of the 2020 NFL MVP award ... not just Defensive Player of the Year.
But he definitely deserves that one.
I won’t focus all my energy on Donald’s stat line and how many sacks he gets, but as we saw against the 49ers, sometimes Donald is the only player on this team who can take over when Goff goes flat. Donald can will the Rams to victory sometimes. Against a Patriots team that is gaining confidence as the season goes on, in what could potentially be another low-scoring contest, Donald’s dominance against David Andrews, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason could be what tips the game into LA’s favor.
Matt Gay, K
Crazy things happen on Thursday night and teams rarely seem prepared to play that soon after a Sunday schedule. That can mean close games, or unexpected blowouts, upsets and playing the part of spoiler. All of which tells me that special teams is important this Thursday and we already know that New England could have the best overall special teams in the NFL.
They have a punt return touchdown, an excellent punter, and like the Rams, they parted ways with a longtime veteran kicker in the offseason. The Patriots went for experience, unlike LA, and went with Nick Folk, who has made 19 straight field goals, including two game-winners from 50 and 51 yards, respectively.
The Rams did not go with experience and McVay is likely dreading the idea of having Matt Gay decide his team’s fate in the final seconds.
Gay is 10-of-10 on extra points in three games, but missed a field goal against the Cardinals, his second miss with the Rams. Considering that the Patriots could do a decent job of containing Goff and LA’s offense in the red zone and just outside of it, Gay’s name could be called more than a couple times this Thursday and if he misses again, that might be the deciding factor in the score.
Who else would you say needs to step up the day after tomorrow?