The Rams won their third in a row, the latest a 36-19 victory over the Cleveland Browns, and are No. 8 in the NFC playoff race, No. 7 being the final postseason spot. The Chargers kept their mathematical chances for an AFC playoff position alive with a 6-0 road victory over the New England Patriots. Los Angeles Times Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, NFL columnist Sam Farmer and columnist Helene Elliott discuss what happened and upcoming prospects:
What is more surprising, that “banged up” Puka Nacua has been able to stay on the field this far into the season or that he keeps coming back from what appear to be significant injuries?
Farmer: It’s all impressive. The guy is just really tough. His durability has helped keep the Rams afloat and in the postseason mix.
Elliott: The guy’s amazing. Sean McVay wasn’t exaggerating by much when he said he thought Nacua was dead when he hit the ground so hard Sunday. I asked Nacua if he felt dead. “A little bit,” was his reply. But his determination to come back probably was inspirational to his teammates, and he said he just has too much fun on the field to sit out very long. How many players say that? His energy has been picked up by his teammates, I think. He’s charismatic and funny and, it seems, more durable than anyone could have expected. He will probably be sore for the next few days, but he gets kudos for playing through what had to be a lot of discomfort on Sunday.
Klein: It’s not a surprise because Nacua is obviously tough and committed to being on the field. But his style of play takes a toll. So Nacua and the Rams will be challenged to keep him available as the season — and his career — progresses.
Rams defensive lineman Kobie Turner has 4½ sacks in his last four games, and shared a sack with Aaron Donald that resulted in a safety against the Cleveland Browns. What can be attributed to his rise in play?
Klein: Call it the “Aaron Donald factor.” Turner is a smart and talented player. So is rookie edge rusher Byron Young. And like many Rams defensive linemen before them, both are benefiting from playing with Donald. The attention Donald draws from opponents creates opportunities for others.
Farmer: Also helps that the Rams have been ahead in games, forcing opponents to abandon the run. With 5.5 sacks, Turner leads all rookies in that department.
Have these Rams faced anything this season that would prepare them for the Ravens with the speedy Lamar Jackson at quarterback and facing a dominant defense on the road? In other words, how can they get an upset?
Farmer: It’s just a weird year in the NFL, so anything can happen. The Patriots beat the Bills. The Cardinals beat the Cowboys. As for the Rams, they’re facing one of their toughest opponents. That said, the Rams have gone four games without allowing an opponent more than 20 points, and they’re coming off 399 yards and 36 points against a really good Cleveland defense. So you never know.
Elliott: The Rams have been able to diversify their offense, especially with the return of Kyren Williams, and adjust to situations pretty well … so I think they should be competitive against the Ravens. Not sure they will win, but I think they have enough offensive options to make it a good one. And McVay seems to enjoy coaching a bunch of fighters. With little pressure on him this season, he’s probably agonized less and enjoyed their wins more.
Klein: This will be among the Rams’ biggest challenges. Playing against Anthony Richardson, Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray might have prepped them for Jackson. But I can still remember Jackson passing for five touchdowns and running for 95 yards in a rout of the Rams in 2019. This game will serve as a barometer for where the Rams really are. Unlike college football, the NFL is great in that any team can be defeated. If Matthew Stafford continues to play well and the defense can slow down Jackson, the Rams could win.
Will the Rams make the playoffs?
Elliott: They have the tiebreaker over Seattle, which could be crucial. And after they play at Baltimore next week, they will play three straight games against teams that are below .500 now (Washington, New Orleans and the Giants) before finishing the regular season at San Francisco. They might need some help, but it is possible. That’s a situation no one could have envisioned before this season began.
Farmer: Wouldn’t bet the house on it, of course, but they have a reasonable chance. Let’s look at the two NFC wild-card teams ahead of them right now, Green Bay and Minnesota. The Packers beat the Rams, have won three in a row and have a favorable schedule down the stretch, not a winning team in the bunch — New York Giants, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Minnesota, Chicago. It’s going to be tough to bump out Green Bay. The Vikings have a rougher road, including two games against Detroit and one against the Packers. The Rams need them to get wobbly. The Rams’ final stretch is bracketed by big challenges: at Baltimore and a road finale against San Francisco. Winning either of those would be hugely helpful. Sandwiched between those matchups are games against Washington, New Orleans and the New York Giants, who are a combined 13-24. So Los Angeles, which is a much stronger team with running back Kyren Williams in the lineup, has a heartbeat.
Klein: There’s no way to accurately predict how all of the teams involved in the playoff race will affect the Rams’ chances. So I would defer to Sam based on his many years covering the league and the playoff scenarios. But the way I see it, the Rams should beat Washington, New Orleans and the New York Giants. The games against Baltimore and San Francisco will be the potential tipping points, as Sam mentioned. The game against the Giants is the potential trap game. OK, the Rams make the playoffs.
Can you remember another time when the winning team in an NFL football game averaged 1.2 yards per carry as the Chargers did against the Patriots? And that is with 24 attempts for 29 yards. It’s not like they compensated through the air, passing for 212 yards.
Farmer: Can’t say that I remember that, specifically, but I’ve definitely seen teams win without generating much offense. Always helps when your defense pitches a shutout. There’s no question the Chargers have issues running the ball. They can’t really do it. But it should be noted that it was wet, slippery and generally lousy out there Sunday, and New England’s got a solid defense. In fact, the Patriots are the first team in the modern era to lose three consecutive games despite holding opponents to 10 points or fewer in each of those games. Regardless, it’s not going to get any easier running the ball against Denver.
Miller: The running game for the Chargers has been a mighty struggle since Week 2 and actually appears to be getting worse. The Patriots have a solid defense, but they looked world-class in limiting the Chargers to barely three feet per carry. Maybe we’re not making a big enough deal out of the loss of center Corey Linsley. This is definitely not as good of an offensive line without him.
Austin Ekeler’s pass-catching duties used to compensate for the lack of a running game. Why do you suppose the Chargers can’t seem to go there anymore? He had just three targets for two catches and nine yards against New England.
Farmer: That’s a mystery. Ekeler looks like a shell of his old self out there. People who have him in fantasy football must be going crazy.
Miller: Ekeler hasn’t looked like himself since suffering a high-ankle sprain in a very productive Week 1 loss to Miami. He appears to be healthy enough, but the explosive plays are not developing. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has been unable to maximize Ekeler in the passing game, which does seem a little strange, especially with the Chargers searching for offense with the injury absences of Mike Williams and Joshua Palmer.
Were you impressed by the Chargers’ defense or depressed watching the Patriots trying to muster offense?
Farmer: There’s no question the Chargers defense played well, but that Patriots offense is horrendous. At some point New England is going to have to try rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham. It can’t get any worse, right?
Miller: The Chargers did what they were supposed to do against a bad offense in the rain Sunday. As much as we’ve picked apart this defense this season, the group does deserve credit for taking care of business at New England.
Next on the list of “must win the rest of the games to have a chance for an AFC playoff spot,” it’s the Broncos at home. How do you view that matchup?
Farmer: The Broncos whipped a U-turn this season, going 5-1 since starting 1-5. There was all that speculation about Sean Payton coaching the Chargers, and now he’s in Denver. There’s Joe Lombardi, who caught his share of flack as offensive coordinator for the Chargers and who now has that job for the Broncos. And on the other side of the ball, Michael Wilhoite coaches outside linebackers for Denver after being a linebackers coach for the Chargers. These teams know each other well. That usually makes for an interesting matchup.
Miller: This has the early feel of a close game the Chargers will lose. Though they lost Sunday, the Broncos are playing much better than they did to open the season, and the Chargers still look like a middling team that will struggle to beat opponents that are at least decent.