I have made a lot of predictions this season—some bad, some good—but looking back I could have never expected a season like the Rams have had this year.
Matthew Stafford may be one of the most criticized quarterbacks in the league after throwing 41 touchdowns to 17 interceptions; Cooper Kupp nearly setting the NFL record for single-season receiving yards while also winning the receiving triple crown, an achievement of which has not happened since 2005; and no one, absolutely no one, could have predicted that the Rams would go into their first playoff game this season with Sony Michel, Von Miller, Odell Beckham Jr., and Eric Weddle on the roster.
The regular season has had its ups-and-downs, its disappointments and brilliant accomplishments, but on Monday none of that matters. The playoffs mark the beginning of a new season and the Rams are hoping to make it a long one. LA opens their first game as 4-point favorites over the Arizona Cardinals according to DraftKings Sportsbook, something else we may not have been able to predict a month ago.
Welcome to the playoffs folks, where anything can happen—here are my bold predictions for LA’s wild card matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.
Greg Gaines is the x-factor
You can no longer mention the Rams defensive line without talking about third year lineman Greg Gaines. It is hard to get much attention when lining up next to Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, and Von Miller, yet week-in and week-out Gaines’ solid and consistent play has made him an important cog in the system and a favorite amongst his peers. With Floyd possibly missing Monday with an injury, though he is expected to play, Gaines’ performance will be even more important in the playoffs.
As many will say in the Rams organization, Gaines is a star in the making. The 4th round pick out of Washington has steadily found his way on the field—beginning the season playing just 36% of the defensive snaps to most recently playing 99% of the snaps against the San Francisco 49ers. Though coming in at 312 pounds, he has shown a quick burst and good speed that he uses to run down elusive quarterbacks, such as Kyler Murray.
Greg Gaines got up like Michael Jackson in Smooth Criminal pic.twitter.com/fdrXZhXdf4— RAMLitosWay (@ramlitosway) December 14, 2021
For the third time this season the Rams will have to attempt to lock up one of the most elusive in the business, but also a quarterback who was just sacked five times against the Seattle Seahawks. With Arizona’s offensive line looking porous in recent weeks, I predict, like many of you already, that Gaines will be the x-factor on Monday and keeps Murray grounded with two pivotal sacks.
The offensive line does not allow a sack
The Cardinals may have handed LA their first loss of the season, but in a Week 4 matchup they did not sack Matthew Stafford a single time. It did not matter much as Arizona brushed past the Rams in a 37-24 beating. In Week 14 it was the opposite—the pass rush from the Cardinals hit home three times, yet it was the Rams that came out victorious in a 27-20 victory.
LA’s offensive line has been one of the best units in the NFL this season but have had their fair share of bad outings. Against the 49ers, they allowed Stafford to get sacked five times, including one on a pivotal third-and-1 call before that half that swung the momentum in San Francisco’s favor. The five sacks were the most allowed by the line since their obliteration against the Tennessee Titans in Week 9.
A KEY sack on 3rd down— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 9, 2022
JJ Watt may also be on the field on Monday after suffering a shoulder injury against the Houston Texans in Week 7, though Arizona’s veteran has not been as dominant on the line as he once was this year with just a single sack on the season. His presence on the field alone could boost a Cardinals defense that was just lit up by Seattle in Week 18; the same defense that only sacked Russell Wilson once. His availability though is still in question for the game.
Zach Allen recovers Russell Wilson's fumble and returns it for the #Cardinals TD!#SEAvsAZ #NFL #NFLTwitter #RedSea #Seahawks pic.twitter.com/6HyvB8vnLQ— Football Outsiders (@fboutsiders) January 9, 2022
Regardless if Watt makes his return on Monday, I predict that a healthy offensive line for the Rams will not allow a single sack on Matthew Stafford. After watching his quarterback hit the turf five times last week, head coach Sean McVay will have a plan to keep his quarterback healthy, which brings me to my next prediction...
Sony Michel and Cam Akers rush for over 220 yards together
Bold? Yes, Impossible? No. With a game under Cam Akers’ belt and Sony Michel playing some of his finest football at the end of the season, there is no telling what the Rams running game is capable of—though we do know what its floor looks like after last week’s horrific performance. This week of anticipation has truly given me 2018 flashbacks of LA’s divisional 30-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys. In that game, Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson combined for 238 yards on the ground and Jared Goff only had to throw 186 yards for the victory.
CJ Anderson has 10 carries for 65 yards and a TD.— The Sporting News (@sportingnews) January 13, 2019
Todd Gurley has 8 carries for 37 yards.pic.twitter.com/UdvWto3m8N
This week is an ideal matchup for LA’s running attack—Arizona has bolstered one of the least effective defenses against the rush. Last week the Seahawks finished the game with 202 yards on the ground in their 38-30 upset over the Cardinals. On average the desert-dwellers allow 114 yards rushing per game. On the flip-side, Los Angeles has been a pass-heavy unit that uses the run to set up play-action, but the same could be said about the 2018 squad that put up 273 total rushing yards in their first playoff game.
Sony Michel is a dawwwwg pic.twitter.com/jj0GIXl2IP— HoldenCantor (@HoldenCantor) December 29, 2021
After yet another disappointing loss to the 49ers last week, McVay will be looking to re-establish his run game to help keep Stafford healthy through the playoffs. With Akers getting his first action of the year last week, it should be expected he gets more opportunities against the Cardinals on Monday—which is why I am predicting that Michel and Akers combine for 220 yards on the ground, just 18 yards short of what Gurley and Anderson did last time LA made a Super Bowl run.
LA never gives up their lead
For a team that finished the season with a 12-5 record, were crowned NFC West Champions, and have a quarterback who threw 41 touchdowns in a single-season, you wouldn’t think that the Rams have anything to prove—yet on Monday they face Arizona with plenty of questions surrounding them. This is LA’s statement game, and they absolutely know it. Last weeks tough loss against the 49ers will define the Rams 2021 season—they are a team that folds under pressure, or they are the team that can bounce-back from anything.
Matthew Stafford goes into the playoffs with 8 interceptions over his last 4 games— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) January 10, 2022
After the game last week, the press conferences with players and coaches could not have been anymore ominous after winning the NFC West championship following a Cardinals loss. The team’s disappointment in themselves was glaring and if one thing could be sure, none of them were celebrating with a cigar in hand. It remains to be seen how they channel that anger and disappointment—but one thing for certain is that this team has always found a way to deal with their adversity.
I believe the loss last week has only made the team focus even more on the task at hand. The defense will play better despite injuries with Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey dialed-in. The offense will hit on all cylinders with Cooper Kupp doing triple-crown type things and the Rams rushing attack unstoppable. I predict that LA starts fast and never lets their lead slip the entire game.
What are you bold predictions? Let me know in the comments below!