If the Los Angeles Rams beat the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, they will be 3-3 and sitting no worse than in the middle of the NFC with the season’s midpoint on the horizon. But lose, and the Rams will be in last place in the NFC West, will have lost four of five, and needing to answer the question, “Who are we?”
For at least a week, they’ll be a team looking up at the Cardinals in the division.
If the Rams win
Having their worst season since Jeff Fisher’s final year in 2016, the 5-12 Rams went 1-1 against the Cardinals. In the second meeting, Colt McCoy beat John Wolford with both DeAndre Hopkins and Rondale Moore gaining over 90 yards.
L.A. lost Cooper Kupp that week after he caught three passes for -1 yard and would be out for the rest of the year. Tyler Higbee caught eight passes on eight targets for a team-best 73 yards, but Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers combined for 12 carries and 43 yards. Bobby Wagner and Leonard Floyd each had one sack in the 27-17 loss, a game that was 27-10 until Van Jefferson scored a meaningless touchdown with :07 seconds remaining.
MANY of the names will have changed for this game on Sunday, for both teams, including the Cardinals head coach, but in any case a 4-13 Arizona team was able to beat an eventual 5-12 Rams team and it was arguably their best performance of the season.
However, when the two teams met for the first time, having Matthew Stafford and Kupp healthy and available, the Rams beat the Cardinals 20-12 in Week 3 and held Kyler Murray’s offense out of the end zone. Murray threw for 314 yards but it took 58 pass attempts to get there and James Conner was held to 39 rushing yards on 13 carries. This time, Marquise Brown led the Cardinals with 140 yards on 14 receptions—Hopkins was suspended at the time—and former Rams receiver Greg Dortch added 80 yards.
mcvay's rams are 11-2 against the cardinals.— roberto clemente (@rclemente2121) October 11, 2023
looking forward to 12-2. pic.twitter.com/56uDZ8Ppti
It wasn’t the best game for anyone on L.A.’s offense. Kupp, who has usually struggled against Arizona for whatever reason, was held to 44 yards on four catches. Ben Skowronek led the way with 66 yards, followed by Higbee at 61. Stafford was an efficient 18-of-25 for 249 yards. Akers, as usual, fumbled. Aaron Donald and Terrell Lewis each had a sack.
Aside from a 24-10 win over the Panthers in Week 6, it was probably the Rams’ best win of the season, at least before all the good players got hurt and setting aside the 51-14 Christmas Day victory over the Broncos with backups.
If the Rams show up on Sunday and beat the Cardinals like they did last September 25th, there is a chance that at this early stage of the season they will be in the upper half of the NFC. Right now there are four teams in the conference who have at least three wins and aren’t leading their divisions. It will be extremely difficult for L.A. to catch up to the 5-0 49ers, especially because of a previous head-to-head loss at home, so it is most likely relevant to see where the Rams stack up compared to other teams that aren’t currently leading their divisions.
The Cowboys (3-2), Saints (3-2), Falcons (3-2), and Seahawks (3-1) are those teams right now. And a 3-3 Rams team wouldn’t seem much worse off, at all, than any of those teams.
L.A. has already beaten Seattle 30-13 and they face the Cowboys in Week 8, the Saints in Week 16 on Thursday Night Football. It is only Week 6, but that’s kind of what everyone expected about the NFC going into the season, which is that there would be two great teams, maybe a couple of teams that emerged, and then a fat middle section where some average-ish teams would have to get into the playoffs.
If the Rams improve to 3-3 against a Cardinals team that is 1-4 and coming off of losses of 19 and 14 points in the last two weeks, L.A. will be right in the thick of the fat and we know that they’re capable of winning on Sunday.
The Cardinals will have a new challenge this Sunday, playing for the first time all year without running back James Conner, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Despite playing with a lot more punch than anyone expected, Arizona is still 1-4 and in the hunt for Caleb Williams, especially if they lose to the Rams this Sunday. New head coach Jonathan Gannon comes from the defensive side of the ball, but the Cardinals rank 32nd in first downs allowed, 30th in third down defense, 31st in plays and yards per drive allowed, 28th in points per drive allowed, 19th in yards per carry allowed, and 24th in yards per pass attempt allowed.
With Stafford, Kupp, and Puka Nacua, it is an opportunity for Sean McVay’s offense to rebound from four straight disappointing outings. Do that, outscore the Arizona Cardinals, and L.A. goes into their Week 7 home game against the Steelers with a chance to be over .500 near the middle of the season.
But if they don’t...
If the Rams lose
The Rams have lost three of the last four games, you have to expect that they will lose at least a few more. That may not be easy to accept, but it is probable regardless of what anyone believes. It may not feel like any of those losses will come to the Cardinals, but divisional games always bring an added element of difficulty and this time Arizona does have at least one ace up their sleeve that they haven’t had in any of the previous matchups:
Jonathan Gannon and his coaching staff.
Whether Gannon turns out to be a good hire or a bad hire or an average hire, nobody knows yet. It’s only been five games and Gannon (and new GM Monti Ossenfort) were tasked with turning over arguably the worst roster in the entire NFL from last season. It wasn’t going to happen overnight.
But what we can say is that McVay has never coached against Gannon. Not as head coaches, obviously, but also not as coordinators. Gannon spent the last two years as defensive coordinator with the Eagles and in that time didn’t face the Rams.
We can also say that Gannon’s start is impressive, despite losing four of five games.
The Cardinals beat the Cowboys 28-16 in Week 3—with a game that wasn’t even as close as the score—and they barely missed victories against Washington and the Giants in the first two weeks of the season. The element of surprise may have helped, especially with regards to how well quarterback Josh Dobbs has played, and that may be part of the reason that the Cardinals have looked much worse in the last two games against the 49ers and Bengals.
But those teams also reached their conference championship games in 2021 and 2022.
The Rams have to be more closely compared to the Cowboys than the 49ers and that’s where McVay, Stafford, Kupp, and Donald need to flex the fact that they reached and won the Super Bowl in 2021. Not identify with the team that went 5-12 and is currently 2-3.
Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing, who had previously been with the Cleveland Browns, has done a masterful job with Dobbs, Conner (now out), Marquise Brown (300 yards), rookie Michael Wilson (255 receiving yards), and Zach Ertz (146 yards), as Arizona is an average offense that ranks second in yards per carry. I know that “masterful” and “average” aren’t usually in the same sentence, but damn...look at who the Cardinals have!
#AZCardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon said he's excited for those inside the RBs room knowing the opportunity in front of them with James Conner injured.— Tyler Drake (@Tdrake4sports) October 11, 2023
He added that the team will get RB Keaontay Ingram back this week and see how he does.
The Cardinals will be working with Keaontay Ingram as the starting running back this week, backed up by undrafted free agent rookie Emari Demercado and veteran journeyman Tony Jones. How that will work out for them, I don’t know, but credit is due to Petzing for being able to rank second in yards per carry without having the best offensive line or even the best running backs. Conner is a really good player, a Pro Bowl player, but nobody expected to be averaging more yards per carry than Christian McCaffrey, Justin Fields, Tony Pollard, and the same YPC as Bijan Robinson.
Arizona is coming to SoFi Stadium to win. They’ve made it clear that they aren’t stripping down the roster and starting Dobbs because they desperately want Caleb Williams or Drake Maye. They’ve got the added benefit of owning the Texans first round pick, so the Cardinals already have multiple shots at a high draft pick, plus we don’t know for sure that they won’t find a path for Murray to continue his career as the franchise quarterback anyway.
The Rams are as good of a choice as “our Super Bowl” as any on Arizona’s schedule.
Especially because those players and coaches—the ones who were told all offseason that they stink and might go 0-17—know that if they leave SoFi with a win, they won’t be in last place.
The Rams will.
If the Cardinals beat the Rams, both teams will be 2-4 but Arizona will have the first head-to-head victory. That leaves L.A. in last place in the NFC West and it leaves the Rams as potentially having the second-worst record in the conference. Only the 0-5 Panthers are guaranteed to have five losses, although the 1-4 Vikings play the 1-4 Bears this week too.
If the Rams fall to 2-4 and looking up at the Cardinals, some serious soul searching will be necessary. Fans can talk about how that will “never happen”, but let’s ask Micah Parsons, Dak Prescott, and CeeDee Lamb if “good teams can’t lose to Arizona”.
Let’s ask Sean McVay if he can’t lose his last career meeting against Kliff Kingsbury.
It’s the NFL, any team can win and the Rams are on the edge of facing a devastating loss if they don’t come out victorious in Week 6. The Cardinals could see this as their Super Bowl of the season.
The Rams should see it that way too, they need it just as bad.