Aside from a mid-season slump where they lost three games in a row, the Los Angeles Rams have played as well as any team in the National Football League - and Matthew Stafford has been a driving force for his team’s success this season. However, on Sunday afternoon Stafford made mistake after mistake and poor throw after poor throw to keep the Minnesota Vikings and their struggling offense in the game.
The Rams, for the most part, won this game 30-23 in spite of their signal caller rather than because of him - and there were a number of key individual performances that kept Los Angeles on the path to victory.
With LA’s big win the team has clinched a playoff berth for the 2021 season, which marks Sean McVay’s fourth time making the playoffs in his five seasons as head coach. The Rams are also now in sole possession of first place in the NFC West with the Arizona Cardinals losing on Christmas day.
This is an 11-4 edition of Winners & Losers:
Jalen Ramsey, DB
Justin Jefferson is one of the best receivers in the league this season, but most of the damage he caused against the Rams came late in the game when LA was protecting a two-score lead. Although he hasn’t always been asked to matchup with number one receivers this season, Jalen Ramsey’s primary assignment in the first half was Jefferson - and the star corner erased him from the game.
Justin Jefferson at the half:— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) December 26, 2021
Jalen Ramsey effect.. pic.twitter.com/rfwXo7wKBp
Adam Thielen battled injuries on Sunday afternoon and he had trouble staying on the field. With he and Jefferson mostly unavailable, Kirk Cousins had very little to work with. This was one of Ramsey’s best outings yet this season.
Ramsey locks up Jefferson on 3rd down pic.twitter.com/adz21S9jrl— Billy M (@BillyM_91) December 26, 2021
Aaron Donald, DT
Aaron Donald has been a regular member of the “Winners” list over the last month or so, and his performance in Minnesota was one of his finest this season. Donald was a monster in the run game and he was a force against the pass - recording three tackles for loss and a strip sack.
Between the acquisition of Von Miller and the emergence of Greg Gaines, Donald has taken his individual play to a new level of disruption over the last four to five games.
Brandon Powell, KR/PR
LA’s much-maligned special teams unit has struggled at times this season, but return specialist Brandon Powell has been a silver lining since joining the team in recent weeks. Powell has had some explosive kick returns - and against Minnesota he took a punt 61 yards for a touchdown.
Powell’s score marks only the second time in the NFL this season that a touchdown has been scored on a punt return, which highlights just how special this play was on Sunday.
David Edwards, Coleman Shelton, Alaric Jackson
The Rams placed veteran left tackle Andrew Witworth on the COVID-19 reserve list on Saturday, and usually that means the team would turn to Joseph Noteboom; however, Noteboom has missed the last two games on the COVID list as well.
Left guard David Edwards shifted over to left tackle and Coleman Shelton, who filled in for Brian Allen at center versus the Arizona Cardinals in Week 14, made the start at left guard.
For the first time since signing Andrew Whitworth in 2017, neither he nor his apprentice Joe Noteboom are available for the Rams.— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) December 26, 2021
So David Edwards bumps out to make first start at LT. Coleman Shelton will make first start at LG.
Allen (C), Corbett (RG), Havenstein (RT) intact.
But then Brian Allen injured his knee in the first half, sending the Rams’ plan C into disarray.
Edwards moved inside to left guard and Shelton shifted over to Center. Rookie undrafted free agent Alaric Jackson played important snaps at left tackle - but the trio did not seem to miss a beat.
Sure, the Vikings don’t have an elite pass rush; however, neither do the Seattle Seahawks and we saw the LA offensive line give up four sacks last week with Rob Havenstein out with COVID issues.
The truth is this could have easily been a disaster for the Rams, and the fact it wasn’t is a huge testament to these three young offensive linemen.
Sony Michel, RB
Sony Michel has been a steady presence for Los Angeles over the last month. With uncertainty along the offensive line and with their quarterback struggling mightily, the Rams leaned on the run game and Michel took control - rushing 27 times for 131 yards (4.9 average) and a touchdown.
Darrell Henderson came in at one point and had a single carry before being ruled out for the remainder of the game with a knee injury, which unfortunately epitomizes the season Henderson has been having up to this point. Michel has been so dependable for LA, and his previous playoff and Super Bowl experience could be crucial as the Rams prepare for the playoffs.
SONY MICHEL GETS IN— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) December 26, 2021
Odell Beckham, Jr., WR
Cooper Kupp once again finished with over 100 yards, but the Rams’ most efficient receiver on Sunday afternoon may have been Odell Beckham, Jr. OBJ finished with 4 receptions for 37 yards and an impressive goal line touchdown, but Stafford missed Beckham multiple times including a deep attempt that would have resulted in a long touchdown.
This Odell route. SHEESH.— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) December 26, 2021
Four TDs in LA pic.twitter.com/TrDOhS5BBs
It is encouraging to see OBJ round into form and become more comfortable with the Rams, and he will be an important player over the last two games and heading into the playoffs.
Tyler Higbee, TE
Tyler Higbee missed games against the Cardinals and Seahawks. While there didn’t appear to be a significant void at the tight-end position in Higbee’s absence, the veteran made it clear on Sunday versus the Vikings how valuable he is to this team. Higbee has never filled up the stat sheet on a consistent basis, but he is a reliable contributor and an important role player.
Higbee finished with 5 receptions on 6 targets for 41 yards in Minnesota.
Best when your best is required?— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) December 26, 2021
Those were Stafford's best moments -- especially on 3rd down -- to give the @RamsNFL a two-touchdown lead with 11:37 to go in Week 16.
Higbee and OBJ on the receiving end of those clutch throws.
Matthew Stafford, QB
The Rams had a ten-point lead going into halftime, but the Vikings 3 points in the first half came off a Stafford interception deep in LA territory. In the third quarter Stafford threw another interception (Anthony Barr’s second) which was returned to the Rams’ goal line and effectively handed the Vikings another 7 points.
The concerning part of these turnovers is that they follow a trend of recent Rams losses where the team fell behind early due to Stafford’s inability to take care of the ball. Simply put, these are mistakes that veteran quarterbacks should not make - and Stafford could have had thrown 3-4 more interceptions that were dropped by Viking defenders.
Stafford’s turnovers are the only reason the Vikings were competitive in the second half. If the Rams’ signal caller turns in a performance like this in the playoffs, LA will fall well short of their Super Bowl hopes. The bottom line is that this performance is not good enough and this level of production won’t cut it against better teams.
Darious Williams, CB
With Ramsey handling Jefferson and Thielen’s impact mitigated by his injury, Darious Williams should have been dealt a favorable assignment; however, it seemed that most of the Vikings’ impact plays in the passing game came with Williams in coverage.
Williams was seemingly turning a corner after the team’s big victory against the Cardinals, when Ramsey was out due to COVID concerns, but he has yet to live up to the expectations he set for himself a year ago. Williams’ lackluster play has not yet cost the Rams a game this season, but the possibility is certainly there - he needs to be better.