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Matthew Stafford, Rams Remind Rest of the NFC They're Super Bowl Contenders

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 14, 2021

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 13: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Rams calls a play at the line of scrimmage in the second quarter of the game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 13, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

As it turns out, the Los Angeles Rams were mostly dead after losing three of their last four games. There's a big difference between a team's Super Bowl aspirations being mostly dead and all dead. 

Matthew Stafford and Co. got better quickly with an impressive 30-23 victory Monday over the NFC-leading Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on Monday. 

Essentially, Sean McVay's squad went back to who it was at the start of the season instead of the team struggling to accomplish much of anything against the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. (A 37-7 drubbing of the Jacksonville Jaguars doesn't amount to much as that franchise implodes under Urban Meyer's direction.)

The Rams weren't just beat; the aforementioned opponents dominated them at points. Los Angeles went from the chic Super Bowl pick with Stafford being a frontrunner for MVP to a squad that lost three straight contests to playoff-caliber opponents by a combined score of 95-54. 

Basically, Los Angeles vacillated from an offensive juggernaut to questions surrounding Stafford and whether he's not capable of leading a winning franchise to the Rams beating a rival with the league's best record. 

The NFL can be strange. Everyone sees unexpected outcomes each week with certain teams simply not playing well for whatever reason. The Rams went through their funk. They came out the other side with one of the season's most impressive victories and a 9-4 record while being only one game behind the NFC's three 10-win squads. 

To understand just how tight the playoffs races are at the moment and how deeply parity runs throughout professional football, the 2021 campaign is only the third season since the league expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978 not to have a team clinch a playoff spot by Week 14, per NFL Research

Los Angeles' approach wasn't overly complicated. The coaching staff made sure to feed wide receiver Cooper Kupp, get Odell Beckham Jr. the ball and move the pocket for Stafford, while the Rams' defensive line consistently won their matchups to fluster and flush Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. 

Ralph Freso/Associated Press

The Rams did these things despite what amounted to a COVID-19 outbreak with star defensive back Jalen Ramsey, starting right tackle Rob Havenstein, running back Darrell Henderson Jr., tight end Tyler Higbee and cornerback Dont'e Deayon not playing after being placed on the reserve list. 

The Ramsey and Higbee news didn't come to light until a few hours before the Rams' latest contest began. 

"My initial reaction is you've got to be s--ting me," McVay told reporters afterward. 

While the hope is everyone mentioned will be OK, their absence didn't have much of an impact on Monday's outcome. The depleted Rams still looked pretty, pretty good starting with Stafford. 

Questions began to bubble to the surface about the 33-year-old's supposed inability to lead a successful playoff squad. To be fair, the Detroit Lions went 0-3 in the playoffs during his tenure and the Rams still need to clinch a postseason bid then win a game that truly matters before the stigma goes away completely. However, Stafford's performance Monday indicates he's the right man to lead the Rams against the league's best opposition. 

Stafford provided a highly efficient, while simultaneously dazzling performance, by completing 76.7 percent of his passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns. His tosses included, but weren't limited to a no-look pass while being hit, a perfectly placed touchdown pass to Kupp, and a beautifully thrown bomb while rolling to his left. 

A strong playaction game certainly helped. Stafford was nearly perfect on the night when utilizing the play fake, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. 

Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats

Matthew Stafford completed 7 of 8 play action passes for 129 yards and a TD (+9.7 pass EPA). Stafford leads the NFL in pass EPA (+52.0) on play action dropbacks this season, despite using play action at the 25th-highest rate among qualified QB (22%). #LARvsAZ | #RamsHouse https://t.co/QXFZHWwnAE

When the Rams are rolling, they rely on their zone running attack, a strong play-action passing attack and involving all of the weapons at wide receiver, particularly Kupp. The Cardinals had no answer whatsoever for the league's leading receiver. 

Kupp caught a career-high 13 passes for 123 yards. It's not like the Rams are force-feeding the 28-year-old target. He's adept at creating separation and yards after the catch. His nine straight games with 90 or more yards is tied for the most in the last 70 seasons, per NFL Research. The Rams coaching staff is helping by not allowing the defense to key on his alignment. 

Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats

Cooper Kupp reeled in a career-high 13 receptions for 123 yards and a TD in the #Rams 30-23 victory over the Cardinals. Kupp became the first player in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016) to have a reception from all seven pre-snap alignments in a game. #LARvsAZ | #RamsHouse https://t.co/MXovMj41g5

As good as Kupp was, Odell Beckham Jr. finally started to look like his old self with his new team. OBJ showed burst after initially battling through a knee injury upon his Los Angeles arrival. The midseason addition caught six passes on seven targets for 77 yards. 

Kupp, Beckham and Van Jefferson each caught touchdown passes in the same game in two straight weeks. 

On the other side of the ball, a war daddy controlled the line of scrimmage. Aaron Donald is unlike anything the game has ever seen. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year simply takes over contests, and he did so again Monday. From the very first Cardinals offensive series, Donald affected Murray's performance through pressure and constant harassment. The interior defender registered three sacks, including the game-clinching takedown, and three quarterback hits. 

Donald regularly dominates. But he has help off the edges from Leonard Floyd and Von Miller. Nose tackle Greg Gaines' non-stop motor gave Murray's fits as well. When a front four plays with the same level of intensity and relentlessness as the Rams did Monday, any deficiencies throughout the rest of the unit can be hidden. For example, Murray missed two open receivers on Arizona's initial drive. Why? Because he had pressure in his face, which didn't allow him to follow through or accurately place what would normally be easy completions. 

Currently, McVay's squad owns the fifth seed, but four winnable games are in front of the Rams. Los Angeles should be favored against the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens before facing the San Francisco 49ers for the second time. The Rams will get help, too, once the current members on the COVID list return to the lineup. 

The idea of the Rams not being counted among the NFC's elite, thus a legitimate Super Bowl contender, is inconceivable. A simple reminder against an opponent with the game's best record was needed to regain said status, though. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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