Championship teams often peak right about now. The Los Angeles Rams are doing the opposite.
The once-unbeatable Rams have lost more games in the last eight days than they did during the first 13 weeks of the 2018 NFL season. And while even elite teams hit speed bumps, it's tremendously concerning that Los Angeles was utterly outplayed in both losses.
It's also an indication that the team's Week 14 dud—a sloppy 15-6 road loss to the Chicago Bears—was no fluke. The offense has hit a December wall—one the Rams might not be able to ascend between now and January.
They looked sluggish in a Week 13 victory over the Detroit Lions, they looked frightened in that Week 14 loss to the Bears, and they shockingly looked overmatched in Sunday night's 30-23 home loss to a Philadelphia Eagles team that was reeling as a 13.5-point underdog without its starting quarterback.
What's wrong with the Rams? As per usual in this league, it starts with the quarterback.
Following a two-interception performance against the Eagles, Jared Goff has now turned the ball over as many times in the last three games (eight) as he did during the first 11. He had a 113.5 passer rating entering Week 13, but since then he's completed just 55.0 percent of his passes with a 5.5 yards-per-attempt average, a one-to-seven touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 51.3 rating.
Did Jeff Fisher stage a coup and reclaim the head coaching job?
There are excuses on the table. Goff's receiving corps lacks depth, he misses sure-handed sophomore pass-catcher Cooper Kupp, frigid conditions made life difficult against a tough Bears defense, and the Eagles D certainly came to play as well.
But those don't cut it. The 24-year-old has been consistently throwing behind (or above, below, too far ahead of) open receivers.
If Goff is going to become a special player—a player worthy of a No. 1 overall pick, a rockstar-level second contract and long-term "elite" status—he can't afford to turn into an overwhelmed rookie version of himself just because he's missing one of his favorite targets, or because he's playing in weather lower than room temperature, or because the Eagles unexpectedly showed up at the L.A. Coliseum with leftover magic dust from 2017.
Goff is allowed to have games like those, but they can't come consecutively in the midst of a race for the top seed.
There might be time to turn it around, especially with the three-win Arizona Cardinals and the four-win San Francisco 49ers serving as season-closing target practice. But the damage might have already been done. The New Orleans Saints merely need to win two of their final three games to clinch the NFC's top seed, which would likely force the Rams to travel to the terrifying Superdome for the NFC Championship Game.
Of course, that's assuming they beat a Wild Card Round winner like the Bears, Eagles, Seahawks, Vikings or Cowboys to get that far. Note that they lost to two of those teams and were challenged mightily at home by Seattle and Minnesota.
The Rams have converted just nine of their last 30 third-down plays, they've scored just one first-quarter touchdown since their Week 12 bye, and Goff has completed just two passes on 20-plus-yard throws in the last three weeks.
They had just one 25-yard gain on Sunday night, and that came with 4:19 remaining in regulation, when they were down 14 points and facing a prevent Philadelphia defense. They didn't even attempt another deep pass on their final drive, mainly because the Eagles were taking that away from them.
That's something we saw in Chicago and, to an extent, in Detroit as well. An offense that gained 25 or more yards 36 times in its first 11 games has done so on just three plays the last three weeks.
L.A.'s opponents would prefer to see if the Rams can kill them with a thousand Todd Gurley cuts rather than two or three Goff bombs, especially now that there's enough tape to prepare for whatever that passing game has to offer.
That strategy could be an indication teams are tired of getting embarrassed by Sean McVay. Everybody is giving the Rams everything they've got, which is an age-old complication that comes along with being considered the best. Did you see the way the Eagles were flying around the field in pursuit on defense? A prideful reigning champion wasn't going down without a fight, and neither will anybody the Rams face in January.
Of course, it doesn't help that Gurley didn't look healthy while dealing with a knee injury against the Eagles. He's one of just three players in the league with more than 300 touches. And while he's still playing at an All-Pro level, the last two outings indicate he probably can't carry the Rams on his own.
That's not really how this league works nowadays. Only two of the last 13 Super Bowl champions employed a Pro Bowl running back.
And it would be one thing if that was the Rams' only potential Achilles' heel, but Thetis may have used both hands when she dipped this team into the River Styx.
We can't let the Los Angeles defense off the hook.
The Rams are one of just five teams—along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins—that have given up 30-plus points in more than five games this season.
Defensive lineman Aaron Donald is still in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year award, and he and his teammates have the talent and playmaking ability to wreck opposing offenses that are prone to mistakes, one-dimensional or both. But when they aren't given the opportunity to pin their ears back with an early lead, they're often exploited on the ground.
Eagles backs Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams and Darren Sproles quietly combined for a triple-digit-rushing-yard performance Sunday night, while Bears backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen took over last week's game in Chicago.
This Rams team has run up its defensive stats against lousy offensive opponents like the 49ers, Cardinals, Raiders, Broncos and Lions, while the Goff-led offense was at its best before Kupp suffered a season-ending knee injury, before the weather turned and before the pressure started to mount with January looming.
Now, Los Angeles looks like a team that peaked too early and has had its flaws exposed and exploited at the worst possible time.