It’s officially playoff time in the NFL and with that, the pressure to win is at its highest. The Los Angeles Rams faced this pressure in 2021 when they sat at the postseason table with all of their chips in the middle. They ended up going all the way and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, but that’s not always the case. Playoff results speak volumes.
Some teams simply have more invested and more at stake during the postseason than others. The team with the most pressure this season with all of their chips in the middle this season might be the San Francisco 49ers. As the number two seed and winners of their last 16 home games, the Dallas Cowboys also have a lot of pressure to win with Dak Prescott playing at his current level. The Buffalo Bills have been on the brink the last few years. A loss before the AFC Championship game would likely lead to a lot of changes.
...and then you have the Rams.
The Rams are at the table, but how many chips do they really have in the middle? This was a team that was down to their final hand in Week 11 to the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks pushed most of their chips in the middle as they held a straight, but the Rams one-upped them with a Royal Flush as Jason Myers’ game-winning kick went wide.
Since then, Los Angeles has been a team playing with house money.
Coming into the year, the Rams were seen as a team that was tanking. As Jourdan Rodrigue at The Athletic put it,
“Naturally, many outside the building thought he had lost his mind. ESPN ranked the Rams’ roster No. 31 of 32 teams; The Athletic was only slightly more generous, at No. 23. Popular analytics and evaluation sites referred to the Rams’ defense as a “no-name” unit, and not with a wink.”
The Rams said themselves that they were “remodeling”. They tore out the kitchen sink and master bathroom and replaced them with things that they could get by with in the short-term so that they could build it back even better when their resources were replenished.
They were one of the youngest teams in the NFL. The last team to bring in as many rookies as Los Angeles did in training camp was the 0-16 Cleveland Browns.
This isn’t a roster that was built to win in 2023. As I’ve stated many times this year, the focus has always been on the 2024 and 2025 seasons. The Rams are in the playoffs, but it’s also important for them to remember where their weaknesses lie.
“This is a franchise that has eyes on the 2024 and 2025 season. Their trio of pillars include a 35-year old Matthew Stafford, 30-year old Cooper Kupp, and 32-year old Aaron Donald. They’ve made one thing clear and that is that this is not a re-build. That trio mentioned above wouldn’t have signed up for a re-build. Focusing in on 2024 and 2025 allows them one more chance to win with that trio who have earned that opportunity.”
Making the playoffs is great, and certainly nobody will be disappointed that the Rams went 7-1 down the stretch to make it back to the postseason. The last eight weeks have been fun. Still, it’s important to take a realistic mindset into the postseason.
The playoff experience for a young roster is a good thing. The data on whether or not postseason experience is a benefitting factor in playoff games is unclear. With that said, getting young players like Puka Nacua, Kobie Turner, Byron Young, and others in this position doesn’t hurt. And again, nobody is complaining that the Rams are in the playoffs.
Still, winning on Sunday doesn’t matter for this version of the Rams. They may throw a few chips into the middle of the table and hope they get a few hot hands over the next month. The Rams have been one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the second half of the season. However, there’s no correlation between late-season momentum and postseason success.
Even if the Rams win a game or two, they’ll keep a majority of the chips that they’v earned for 2024 and 2025 when they once again have the resources to take an “all-in” approach. That remains the long-term goal for the Rams.
To be clear, this isn’t to say that Sean McVay and Los Angeles won’t try to win in the playoffs. If they stumble into a Lombardi Trophy, it may be one of the most unlikely championship runs for any team since the 1999 Rams that won the Super Bowl with Kurt Warner.
The underlying point here is that the results for this season don’t necessarily matter in the wider view of the long term goal which is 2024 and 2025. A win on Sunday would be more beneficial in the wider view to Matthew Stafford and his legacy than the team as a whole. This is a team currently ahead of schedule. They are playing with ‘house money’. Either way, this season was a success. The Rams found young pieces in the draft that the can utilize moving forward while pairing them with new star players.
The long-term goal remains 2024 and 2025. With the stakes not as high and pressure on other teams, appreciating this playoff run and what the Rams have done this season is more important than a win.