NFL roundtable: Surprise! Rams might not be best of NFC West

Quite a reality dose for Rams fans wondering how they would be able to get their hands on Super Bowl tickets. All of a sudden, the Rams’ next NFC West game Thursday at Seattle could reshape the division hierarchy. But first, let’s talk about what the 4-0 Cardinals did to the previously undefeated Rams. Moderated by NFL editor Athan Atsales, Los Angeles Times Rams beat writer Gary Klein, NFL writer Sam Farmer and columnist Helene Elliott share their thoughts:

What was surprising about how the Cardinals dominated the Rams?

Elliott: Everything. The Rams’ defense was disjointed and the offense made some strange calls and was ineffective. The comeback they should have been able to come up with just never materialized.

Farmer: It was weird to see the ease with which the Cardinals moved up and down the field. In the Sean McVay era, the Rams have always had the upper hand. In the past, the Cardinals had been confused by all the pre-snap motion of the Rams, the jet-sweep stuff. This time, they were ready. As safety Budda Baker said, “We weren’t going to let them mess with our eyes.” As a result, the Cardinals flipped the script. They were the ones creating the confusion. The Rams defense looked a step behind. Get Kyler Murray off his spot and flush him out of the pocket? OK, he’s going to slip down the sideline for a first down. Contain him on the boundary? He’ll just find an open receiver. And it wasn’t this Air Raid stuff to DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and AJ Green. The Cardinals ran for 216 yards. It was a big change.

Klein: It was probably unrealistic to expect that McVay would own the Cardinals forever. OK, so maybe the Cardinals squeak by. Perhaps a Rams special teams miscue opens the door for a narrow defeat. But Kliff Kingsbury looking Belichick-ian in outcoaching McVay? Didn’t see that coming.

Many had doubted Arizona going into Week 4. Do the Cardinals look like a legitimate contender?

Klein: Count me among the former doubters. I don’t know if Murray can maintain his stellar level of play. But if he does, the Cardinals will contend. Before COVID-19, reporters were allowed on the field before games. It was great because you could get a real sense of mood. I distinctly recall in 2019 when the Baltimore Ravens came out of the Coliseum tunnel and went through warmups. There was an unmistakable aura of confidence. They routed the Rams, 45-6. Maybe it’s the J.J. Watt effect, but even from afar in the SoFi Stadium press box this Cardinals team just looked different.

Farmer: Definitely. This was supposed to be the game that revealed them as pretenders. The Rams were coming off a win over the defending Super Bowl champions, a game in which the Buccaneers had no answers — not Bruce Arians, not Todd Bowles, not Tom Brady. For Arizona to come into SoFi Stadium and put that kind of game together, I mean, what else do you want to see? Now, these next two weeks will be pivotal. The Cardinals missed the playoffs last season because they couldn’t win either of their last two games. The first was against San Francisco, which had C.J. Beathard at quarterback and had to move its entire operation to Arizona because of COVID-19. And the second loss was to the Rams, who had John Wolford at quarterback. So the Cardinals missed a huge opportunity. Now, they’ve beaten the Rams, play host to San Francisco on Sunday, then play Cleveland. Huge stretch.

The NFC West appears to be a loaded division. How many division teams do you think could make the playoffs, considering four division winners and three wild-card teams qualify? It might be the best division, but they will be beating up on each other.

Farmer: Too early to tell. We’re four weeks into a 17-game season. So three teams from the NFC West is certainly possible. What’s clear is the NFC and AFC West are the toughest divisions, top to bottom.

Klein: Still think three teams can make it. But the Rams blew a great opportunity to ensure they would be one of them. Had they defeated the Cardinals, and carried that momentum into a victory at Seattle, they would have been 5-0 with upcoming games — and likely victories — against the lowly Giants, Lions and Texans. They had a chance to be 8-0, the same start as their Super Bowl season in 2018.

Rams edge rusher Leonard Floyd pursues Seattle’s Russell Wilson last season. Even at 32, the quarterback’s running ability can frustrate defenses.

(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

The Rams will be facing a similar problem on defense when they play at Seattle on Thursday against mobile quarterback Russell Wilson. How does this loss change the outlook on that game?

Elliott: A good question about a legitimate concern. If they were so helpless against Murray, it could get ugly against a veteran like Wilson.

Farmer: I doubt it changes the Rams’ outlook much, though. Good teams are more stable than that. Bad teams chase and change their philosophies. The Rams have done well against Wilson over the years. Think about all the trouble Aaron Donald has given him. Wilson and Murray are somewhat similar, but they’re not the same guy. Murray has younger legs and ridiculous, cartoonish speed. He’s in a stage in his career when he’s on a hair trigger to tuck the ball and run. Wilson picks up yards with his legs, and certainly extends plays with them, but he’s not as much of a running threat as Murray. I think the Rams recover and don’t get gashed by the run as badly.

Klein: The bigger implication was the Seahawks’ victory over the 49ers, which enabled them to avoid a three-game losing streak going into a short turnaround before facing the Rams. I agree with Sam, Murray at 24 is much more of a scrambler than Wilson at 32. Wilson, in the last few games against the Rams, sometimes appeared content to take a sack. But he remains a master at moving in and out of the pocket and delivering deep passes. I’m most curious to see if Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, a former McVay assistant, can implement plays and concepts that exploit the Rams.

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