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Rams matchup against Saints is most important non-playoff game of McVay era

Is Thursday Night game against Saints the most important regular season game for Rams in the McVay era?

Washington Commanders v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Coming into the 2023 season, there weren’t a lot of expectations for the Los Angeles Rams. Now, heading into Week 16, the Rams essentially have a playoff game on Thursday night football against the New Orleans Saints. If Los Angeles wins, they have a 67-69 percent chance at making the playoffs. That drops to 7.5-9 percent if they lose, depending on the model.

It can be argued that this is the most important regular season game for the Rams in the Sean McVay era. The Rams come into this game as four-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook. They are playing some of the best football in the NFL right now and should win this game.

Certainly, there were important moments like winning the NFC West title and clinching the playoffs during his first season. There were important games against the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles early in his tenure that would have gone a long way in earning the number one seed. In 2020, the Rams played a win-or-go home game against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17. The Monday Night game against the Cardinals in 2021 was also hugely important.

With that said, the only game that really has an argument over this one is Rams-49ers in Week 18 with the NFC West title on the line. That was a game that the Rams lost, but still were able to take the division with the Seattle Seahawks beating the Cardinals.

Similarly, this is a game against a rival. The Rams and Saints have had their battles over the last five years, none other that the 2018 NFC Championship game. This is the home finale on a short week going against the team that theoretically ended their season last year. A loss in this game feels like a playoff death sentence.

With how much is on the line in a primetime game setting and what will be a playoff atmosphere, the Rams need to be able to show up in a big way. McVay was counted out heading into the year. Thursday is an opportunity for him to show just how great of a head coach that he is.

Rams Offense vs. Saints Defense

Last week, the Rams played one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL. Matthew Stafford started the game 12-for-12 and finished with 258 yards and two touchdowns. Kyren Williams had a big day against the Commanders, but will need to be relied on even more on Thursday against the Saints.

The Saints rank just 24th in run defense DVOA for the season, but are eighth in run defense EPA and sixth in success rate. However, over the last five weeks they are 27th in run defense EPA. In the last three games they are allowing 135.3 rushing yards per game which ranks 26th. This could be a big Kyren Williams game.

Matchup to Watch: iOL Kevin Dotson vs. DL Nathan Shepherd

Dotson has been one of the best run-blocking guards in the NFL this season while Shepherd has been one of the worst run-defending defensive tackles according to Pro Football Focus. However, Shepherd has been good rushing the passer whereas Dotson has struggled there at times recently. Dotson dominating this matchup with Rob Havenstein back will be crucial.

Rams Defense vs. Saints Offense

In games that the Rams have lost or struggled in, it has been because the defense hasn’t locked down in the red zone. For them to beat the Saints, turning red zone possession into field goals will be more important than usual. New Orleans, especially as of late, have capitalized on red zone possessions.

Over the past three weeks, the Saints are scoring touchdowns at a rate of 90 percent in the red zone. That could mean that they are due for a regression back to the mean. At the same time, this is also an offense that understands that if they can give their defense a lead, they are in good shape. The Rams defense ranks 12th in red zone defense for the season, but they have gone through stretches where they have struggled.

Matchup to Watch: CB Ahkello Withspoon vs. WR Chris Olave

The Saints have some explosive playmakers on offense and one of those players is Chris Olave. Witherspoon has a tendency to get beat vertically and Olave has the ability to win down the field. Both players will be playing a little banged up as well with Witherspoon leaving the game last week and Olave dealing with an ankle injury. This should be a fun matchup.

Prediction

It’s going to be interesting to see how this young Rams team responds to playing on a short week. Does that lead to more mistakes than usual or do they continue playing at the same high level that they’ve been at over the past month? How do they respond to the high-pressure situation? If the Rams put out a sound performance, it will be a huge credit to the coaching staff.

The Rams playoff chances ride on the result of this game. If they can pull out this win, they remain in control of the seven seed and will hold the tiebreaker over both the Saints and Seahawks.

Prediction: Rams 24, Saints 20