The Debrief, Week 12: Rams among biggest bouncebacks

Print

LOS ANGELES -- On the decisive 13-play, fourth-quarter drive that put away the New Orleans Saints for good Sunday, second-year Rams quarterback Jared Goff looked to his rookie receivers. The coverage demanded it -- and so did the play of Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds.

It did not appear to surprise anyone with the Rams, including Kupp, that his best game came one week after his worst pro performance.

"I believe I was made to play this game," Kupp said in the locker room after recording eight catches for 116 yards, admitting that he had to fight against getting down on himself.

Kupp's bounce-back performance after a key fumble and drop in Minnesota mirrored this young Rams team's response to that decisive loss as a whole, with Kupp's final two catches in the win over New Orleans serving as a showcase for his varied skill set.

He picked up a first down by beating Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro in one-on-one coverage. Kupp was quick to laud Vaccaro as a "cerebral" player whom he respected, but it was a mismatch that the Rams took advantage of all day. Kupp's second first down on the drive came, he explained, after he and Goff both recognized where the Saints' blitz pressure was coming from, allowing Kupp to create huge separation based on the coverage he saw.

"I think that really helps, where you give [Kupp] some routes where he's got some different varieties and options that he can run a route a certain way based on the look and the leverage, and he and Jared have a really good rapport. He's going to continue to be a big part of our offense for years to come," Rams coach Sean McVay said after the game.

Reynolds, taken in the fourth round in April's draft, spoke about the trust that McVay instills in his team. It was apparent in the big role in the game plan given to Reynolds, who replaced Robert Woods (out with a shoulder injury) in the starting lineup despite having only one career catch entering Sunday. McVay believed the best way to beat the Saints was to throw early and often, staying aggressive with that plan until the end, avoiding a Saints defense clearly geared up to stop running back Todd Gurley. Reynolds wound up with four grabs, including a touchdown and a key third-and-long conversion on the drive that all but ended the game. The Rams now have eight wins in a season for the first time since Reynolds and Goff were in middle school.

McVay has spoken often about establishing a "culture" with the Rams. While that work starts in the offseason, there is nothing as valuable as the team's young players leading a five-minute, 28-second drive to end an opposition's eight-game winning streak with a national audience watching.

As fireworks went off at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, members of the still-forming Rams fan base -- which continues to go through its awkward phase -- in the lower bowl squealed as players lingered, signing autographs and soaking up a moment this franchise hasn't experienced in a long time. They matter. This is a Rams organization still feeling out its new/old home, still in limbo before moving into its own permanent stadium, still trying to connect with the Rams teams from the past. With a brilliant young head coach and his resolute young roster, crucial post-Thanksgiving wins ending in the Los Angeles dusk could became a brand new tradition of its own.

Kupp and his Rams teammates weren't the only ones to have big bounceback performances in Week 12. Here's a look at a few more that caught my eye:

Tyrod Taylor and the Bills' defense

A league full of decision-makers who prize leadership out of their quarterbacks must have taken notice how Taylor handled the rocky previous two weeks. He accepted his benching with equanimity, leaned on his love of the game when it was most tested and then delivered when he inevitably was called upon again. Taylor hasn't shown anything different in his six quarters of play since coming back off the bench than he showed before, leading the Bills to 33 points with one turnover.

He can be spectacular for a few plays at a time, like early during Sunday's win against the Chiefs when he converted a third-down throw while getting hit low, just a play before he threw a pinpoint touchdown rolling to his left. He can be careful, almost to a fault, like a parallel universe Alex Smith. But Taylor has showed the steadfast temperament required of an NFL starting quarterback, especially one who resides in the middle class of signal-callers who earn hefty contracts with little lasting respect from fans and management. I don't think he'll get a "financial apology" contract in Buffalo like Donovan McNabb once did, but how Taylor handled this drama should only help him find another starting job.

If the Bills struggled to turn to Nathan Peterman during the season, just imagine trying to do it in March if Taylor leads the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Buffalo has the Patriots twice coming up, but the improved defensive effort Sunday led by rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White and safety Micah Hyde could still help the Bills finish with a winning record.

I have no idea if the return to form on defense will stick, just like no one had any idea what was going to happen when the national media collectively decided the Bills were "for real" just before their "Thursday Night Football" loss to the Jets sent the team into a tailspin. Buffalo still has two games left against Miami and another against the Colts. Wins in those games would get them to nine, which might just be enough. After an offseason that looked like a rebuilding project and a three-week stretch as the worst team in football, that sounds pretty good.

Brett Hundley, Packers quarterback

Hundley followed up one of the lowest-graded games by a quarterback I charted all season with his best game as a pro. It may not be enough to save the Packers' season, but Hundley could still do a lot for his NFL career if he continues to improve with games against the Buccaneers and Browns up next.

Dion Lewis, Patriots RB

Bouncing back is nothing new for Lewis. In his relatively short career, he's been benched for Bryce Brown in Philadelphia, traded to the Browns, broken his leg, released by the Browns, cut by the Colts and tore his ACL with the Patriots, an injury that required follow-up surgery. Lewis recovered from those surgeries in time to contribute to the team's Super Bowl victory in February, only to injure his hamstring on the final play of regulation.

All of that makes Lewis' transformation this season even more remarkable. Having entered training camp fourth on the depth chart as a potential training camp cut, Lewis is now the primary runner for the 9-2 Patriots. His career-high 112 rushing yards against the Dolphins on Sunday was a culmination of a season's worth of shockingly tough running between the tackles for a 195-pound back. Lewis ranks second only to Alvin Kamara in Pro Football Focus' "elusive rating," ranking high in yards after contact and missed tackles created.

After the 2015 AFC Championship Game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was determined to have a running game that could take advantage of the lightweight nickel and dime defenses Tom Brady kept facing, which kept extra defensive backs on the field. This Patriots backfield of Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White could be Belichick's ideal setup, a trio of backs tough enough to handle short yardage carries when asked -- think White in the Super Bowl -- and talented enough to be a mismatch against linebackers in the passing game. Lewis has already hit a career high in rushes and is shaping up as one of the great comeback stories of this season.

Los Angeles Chargers

Known for their bad luck, Philip Rivers and friends should be extra thankful this season they are in this AFC West. Kansas City's collapse and Oakland's malaise somehow have conspired to make the Chargers -- dare I say it? -- the new favorites to win the division. (How could this go wrong?)

One key to their success in winning five of seven games after an 0-4 start has been the transition away from a run-first offense. Head coach Anthony Lynn boosted his reputation by shepherding a strong running game in Buffalo and spent too long trying to turn this Chargers team into something it is not. They are best when allowing Rivers to throw mid-range darts to Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry, while allowing the best pass rushing duo in football Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa do the rest.

Blaine Gabbert and Byron Leftwich

Arizona's upset of Jacksonville goes down in the annals of all-time Revenge Games. For Gabbert and his quarterback coach Byron Leftwich to show up their former organization and its top-ranked pass defense is a moment of karmic beauty, except to Jags fans. While Gabbert made his share of mistakes in the game, it was striking to see Cardinals coach Bruce Arians show faith in Gabbert with his game planning while Jaguars coach Doug Marrone did the opposite with Blake Bortles. Gabbert's connection with tight end Ricky Seals-Jones is one of the most powerful phenomenons of the last two weeks and running back D.J. Foster's catch off a clutch throw from Gabbert was one of the plays of the week. If even one Jaguars fan left that game thinking, "If we only had Blaine Gabbert," then Peak Revenge Game status was achieved.

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Ranked second in ESPN's QBR, second in Pro Football Focus' rankings and fifth in my own silly rankings, Ryan has quietly backed up his MVP season with another excellent year that isn't quite reflected in his traditional stats. He's been on point for the last six weeks and now his teammates are catching up. The Falcons are 7-4 just like they were a year ago, with the strength of the rest of the NFC South being one huge difference compared to 2016. How the next few weeks shake out will largely determine how far this bouceback takes Atlanta ...

Big games ahead

You'll notice a particular emphasis on the NFC South in these games over the next two weeks. Not listed above are Atlanta's final two games, which come against the Saints and Panthers. In short: All three key NFC South teams control their playoff fate and no order at the end of the season should truly shock anyone. After Sunday's loss in Los Angeles, the Saints were all too aware that their long winning streak didn't afford them any breathing room.

"There's obviously no more important than this one coming up, a division opponent with the same record as us. This is an extremely meaningful game," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said before flying home to New Orleans.

For the crowded top of the NFC, which got even closer after the Saints' loss, it feels like those are the only kind of games left.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop