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Winners & Losers: Puka Nacua dazzles in primetime on Thursday night

Ernest Jones lived in the New Orleans backfield in Week 16

New Orleans Saints v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

It was a must-win scenario for the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday Night Football against the New Orleans Saints in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. Sean McVay’s team pulled through and dazzled offensively behind stellar performances by rookie Puka Nacua, Matthew Stafford, and Kyren Williams. The young defense showed signs of struggle similar to last week against the Washington Commanders, but the silver lining is that LA is learning how to win at a time where every game matters.

The Rams beat the Saints 30-22 and move to 8-7 on the season.

Which individual contributions helped them get there? Let’s take a look at the “winners” and “losers” from Thursday evening:

Winners

Puka Nacua, WR

LA’s star rookie needs less than 150 yards over the next two games in order to claim the all-time receiving yardage by a player in their first season (1,473). A dazzling performance under the primetime lights should squarely put Nacua in the offensive rookie of the year conversation, especially considering Houston Texans QB CJ Stroud will likely miss his second-straight game due to injury.

Against the Saints Nacua hauled in nine receptions for 164 yards and a touchdown. He also added two rushes for 16 yards on the ground, including a nine-yard carry that helped milk the clock and put the game away.

Ernest Jones, MLB

Jones ended New Orleans’ first drive by sacking Derek Carr and third down and taking them out of field goal range—it was his third-straight game with a sack. Raheem Morris blitzed Jones early and often and the third-year linebacker lived in the Saints’ backfield. He’s hitting his stride and is a pivotal piece on a defense that is trending upwards.

Jones finished with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and two pass breakups. He was all over the field.

Matthew Stafford, QB

What is left to say about the way Matthew Stafford has played over the last four to five weeks? It may be the best football of his career and it coincides with all aspects of the offense hitting its stride. Demarcus Robinson has taken over the WR#3 role from Tutu Atwell and has given LA a boost. Kyren Williams has three-straight games with over 100 yards and looks like a force to be reckoned with.

It remains to be seen how long the Rams can keep this dynamic level of offensive production up, but you still have to appreciate the way they’re currently playing. Stafford is leading the charge.

He completed 24 of 34 passes (71%) for 328 yards with two touchdowns. He kept the ball out of harm’s way and took only a single sack.

Run defense; bottling up Alvin Kamara

The Saints can be dangerous offensively when they are able to run the ball or check down to Alvin Kamara to take pressure off Carr. It seemed the Rams’ number one priority defensively was taking away Kamara and that was reflected in the final box score. The dynamic running back managed only 19 yards on nine carries (2.1 average). He wasn’t much more productive through the air with just 16 yards on five catches.

Jones and his running mate Christian Rozeboom deserve credit in the middle of the defense along with Bobby Brown, Kobie Turner, and Jonah Williams along the interior of the defensive line.

Kyren Williams, RB

Do the Rams have the best offense in the NFL since Kyren Williams returned from his four-game absence as he recovered from an ankle injury? Los Angeles has embraced a downhill running game and paired that with a passing offense that can spread the ball to any of the five eligible receivers on any play. There’s no singular threat you can account for any longer.

Williams deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Los Angeles offense ahead of the chains and creating yardage after contact and beyond what is blocked by the offensive line. He’s playing as well as any running back currently.

He carried the ball 22 times for 104 yards (4.7 average) and a touchdown. After his touchdown he handed the ball to his mother in the stands for a heartfelt moment.

SoFi Stadium

Is there a venue that looks better when the cameras start rolling in prime time? Fans seemed excited about LA’s playoff prospects and they truly gave the Rams a homefield advantage for maybe the first time all season.

SoFi sure shined on Thursday night.

Losers

Cooper Kupp, WR

On the surface it doesn’t look great that Cooper Kupp complained about playing twice on SoFi Stadium’s turf twice in a five-day span and then had what was certainly his worst performance on the season if not one of the worst games of his career. The veteran receiver caught only six of his 12 targets for 52 yards. His longest catch went for 12 yards.

The Rams offense struggled in the red zone and Kupp deserves a significant portion of the blame for that, as he arguably dropped two touchdown passes. The star receiver wasn’t himself tonight. Hopefully it’s only because of the short turnaround for Thursday Night Football, though a pessimist would point out that Kupp has had a fairly up and down season already.

John Johnson, DB

Jordan Fuller, DB

The Rams have a deep passing coverage problem that has persisted over the last three weeks. Lamar Jackson found Isaiah Likely and Odell Beckham, Jr. for touchdowns three games ago for the Baltimore Ravens. Sam Howell and Jacoby Brissett hit three deep scores last week for Washington. While Derek Carr wasn’t consistently effective in this game, he still connected on long touchdowns to Rashid Shaheed and AT Perry. John Johnson allowed a touchdown reception in the red zone to tight end Juwan Johnson and he’s had his fair share of struggles recently.

The Rams need Johnson and Fuller to play better or they could be the reason Los Angeles’ postseason hopes fall short.

Cobie Durant, CB

Derion Kendrick also contributed to the deep passing coverage issues previously mentioned last week against the Commanders. He was replaced in the starting lineup versus New Orleans by Cobie Durant, who allowed the 35-yard touchdown to rookie receiver Perry. Sure, you can debate that Perry pulled at Durant’s jersey and should have been flagged for offensive pass interference, but it’s also fair to argue that Durant is undersized and has struggled at the catch point over the last two seasons.

It does not seem that the Rams have a solid answer at the starting outside corner position opposite Ahkello Witherspoon.