The rubber match is on in L.A.
The Cardinals and Rams split the season series 1-1, with both road teams winning.
Since getting off to a hot 7-0 start, including a 37-20 shellacking of the Rams in L.A., the Cards have struggled, backing their way into the postseason, losing six of their last 10 games and four of the past five. The Cardinals are the eighth team in NFL history to make the playoffs despite losing four games in December/January of that season. The 2012 Ravens were the only team to win multiple playoff games that season, going on to win the Super Bowl.
The Rams have been an enigma all season, looking dominant at times with a high-flying offense and downright ordinary at others, with Matthew Stafford turning the ball over in droves. Last week's 17-point collapse against San Francisco underscored the issues when the run game disappears, and the defense gets bullied.
Neither team heads into the postseason on a high. But it no longer matters. One NFC West team will move on towards the ultimate goal.
Here are four things to watch when the Rams play host to the Cardinals:
- Can Kyler Murray recapture his early-season magic? Murray's supernatural play spearheaded the Cards' fast start, but the QB has been ordinary after his return from injury. Murray has just seven TD passes in his past six games after tossing 17 in Weeks 1-7. Murray generated the highest completion percentage in the NFL in Weeks 1-7 (73.5%). In his last seven games, he's completed just 65.5%. The Cardinals have scored 30-plus points in just two of their previous eight games (30-plus points in seven of their first nine games). The absence of DeAndre Hopkins has been a killer for Murray and the Cards. According to Next Gen Stats, Murray has an 18.4-pt lower passer rating when Hopkins is not on the field this season. Murray has shown flashes of getting the magic back, particularly against Dallas in Week 17, but the superb play has been too inconsistent down the stretch. With his running ability and skill throwing off-platform, Murray has the talent to put it all together in prime time. The Cardinals need that herculean effort Monday night in L.A.
- Will anyone on Arizona block Aaron Donald? The three-time AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year destroyed the Cardinals in Week 14, netting three sacks (his only game with two-plus sacks this season). It wasn't just with sacks that Donald dominated that night. He controlled the line of scrimmage, forced penalties, and discombobulated the run game. He completely wrecked everything Arizona tried to accomplish. If the Cards can't block him Monday, it'll be another long day for Murray. Donald has 5.5 sacks in six career games versus Murray -- the third-most sacks that Donald has versus any QB in his career (behind Russell Wilson, 15.0, and Matthew Stafford, 6.0). Donald finished the season sixth in the NFL with 64 QB pressures, most among interior linemen.
- Stafford needs a clean game to earn first career postseason victory. The Rams' offense has ebbed and flowed along with Stafford's play. The first-year Ram generated 41 passing touchdowns this season, second-most in the NFL behind Tom Brady's 43. He also has 17 interceptions, tied for most with Trevor Lawrence. Stafford became just the fourth QB (fifth instance) over the last 10 seasons to make the playoffs with 17-plus INTs (2015 Peyton Manning (17), 2014 Andy Dalton (17), 2013 Andy Dalton (20), 2012 Andrew Luck (18)). The Rams are 9-0 this season when Stafford has had a 100-plus passer rating and 3-5 in games his passer rating dips below 100. The Rams are 6-0 when Stafford has no interceptions (6-5 when he has had one-plus INT). The Rams traded for Stafford, who went 0-3 in the postseason with the lowly Lions, believing he was the missing piece to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Now it's on the QB to prove L.A. was correct. Monday night is step No. 1.
- Can J.J. Watt's potential return help boost Cards defense? Watt returned to practice this week after suffering a torn labrum, biceps, rotator cuff and separated shoulder earlier in the season. The fact that he's even attempting to suit up in the postseason is a gosh dang miracle and a testament to his tenacity. The Cards will decide over the weekend if he'll be activated off injured reserve. Arizona could sure use the boost. Watt generated 25 QB pressures (T-14th in NFL, per Next Gen Stats) and eight stuffs (T-6th in NFL, per NGS) from Weeks 1-7. Since his exit, Arizona has lacked punch up front, which has coincided with its swoon. The Cards need pressure -- preferably rushing just four -- to help out the back end, which must deal with Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. Kupp destroyed Arizona in the last meeting, earning 13 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown -- most receptions and yards allowed to a player by the Cards this season. In Week 4, however, Arizona held the Triple Crown winner to five catches for 64 yards, both season lows for Kupp.
Next Gen stat of the game: Stafford has been pressured on 18.2% of blitzes this season, second-fewest in the NFL behind only Tom Brady's 17.7. The Cardinals blitz on 35.1% of dropbacks (third-most in NFL). Stafford versus ARI blitzes in 2021: 11 of 17, 107 yards, three TDs (121.8 passer rating).
NFL Research: This will be just the fourth time that two former No. 1 overall pick QBs will start against each other in a Wild Card Round (second time in the last 20 seasons). The last instance was in the 2013 playoffs: K.C. Alex Smith versus IND Andrew Luck; Colts won 45-44 (both QBs had 375+ pass yards & 4 pass TD). Jeff George's Vikings beat Troy Aikman's Cowboys 27-10 in 1999; Vinny Testaverde's Browns beat Dew Bledsoe's Patriots 20-13 in 1994.