The last time the Arizona Cardinals saw the Los Angeles Rams was in mid-October. It was over by half time and it looked like the 2017 campaign would be as well. The Rams were in control of the division and the Cardinals were looking for a life line. Six weeks later the Cardinals are still fighting for their playoff lives and the Rams remain in control of the NFC West. On Sunday, Arizona welcomes the Rams to the University of Phoenix Stadium for a game that could sway the playoff picture for the entire NFC. Here are three things to watch for on Sunday.
Find Running Room
Last week against Jacksonville, the Cardinals were able to get the run game going just enough to take away pressure from quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the passing game. The run game rallied more than 125 yards on the ground and more importantly, showed a willingness to grind things out with more than 20 carries on the day. This Sunday the offense will need to do the same against a talented Rams defense.
Running back Adrian Peterson has been out of practice for most of this week as he recovers from multiple injuries. Head coach Bruce Arians has come out and stated that the veteran runner will be a game time decision. Peterson will be needed as the Rams front seven is a tough, athletic group and will be a challenge for an inconsistent Cardinals offensive line. The Rams defense has struggled overall against the run. They have allowed the seventh most yards on the ground in 2017. Arizona needs to keep the ball on the ground and find success against the Los Angeles defense. Doing so will open up opportunities for Gabbert and the passing game and keep the quarterback upright.
Pressure Jared Goff
When both teams met back in October, the Cardinals struggled to generate pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff. The second year player was sacked just once that game and for the most part avoided any contact with the defense. This will need to change on Sunday. The Cardinals pass rush has gotten better over the last few weeks as linebacker Chandler Jones has reaffirmed himself as the best pass rusher on the Arizona defense. Jones comes into the game with 12.5 sacks on the year, tied for second in the NFL this season.
The issue is that the Cardinals have no one else stepping up to help Jones in bringing down the quarterback. The next highest total of any active player on the Arizona roster is 3.5 by Olsen Pierre. No other player has more than two sacks. This explains why defensive coordinator James Bettcher is reliant on the blitz to get pressure. The key on Sunday will be to not allow the Rams to convert on third down situations through the air. Last time the Rams converted better than 68 percent of their third down situations. Many of those were throws underneath where Goff had plenty of time to allow his receivers to run across the field and into open space. That will need to change on Sunday if the Cardinals hope to give their offense any chance at scoring.
Find a Way to Win
This late in the season, Arizona needs to win to stay alive in the postseason race. There are a number of teams in the way of a playoff spot so wins, especially against divisional foes will go far towards gaining a spot. Earlier in the season it looked like Arizona didn’t have the necessary grit to take on teams that were at the same level or above them on paper. Games against the Rams in England and on the road in Philadelphia showed an overmatched Cardinals team that seemed to give up and looked defeated.
Three out of the last five games for Arizona will be against NFC playoff contenders, with two coming against the Rams and Seahawks, and the other against the Redskins. Starting with this week, the Cardinals are three games out from the division lead and two games out of the last wild card spot. It’s simple to say that they need to win each game in order to have a chance at the playoffs. However, can this team find the necessary fortitude to win these games? They showed a lot of heart against Jacksonville. This week is a Rams team who embarrassed them just a few weeks ago. The Cardinals will need all hands on deck and a rocking University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. A win brings the team one step closer to the playoffs, a loss all but ends the season.
Last week the pick went against Arizona and somehow the team found the victory. This game is between two very similar teams in terms of talent, but could feature a passing of the torch in a way as the Rams are seen as the new kids on the block who are looking to cement their spot, while the Cardinals are trying to reclaim their claim to the NFC West throne. It should be a tough game but in the hopes of starting a good luck streak, Rams win, 27-23.
*all stats courtesy of NFL.com