(CBSLA) — The Arizona Cardinals (8-7) and Los Angeles Rams (9-6) enter their Week 17 matchup with their playoff hopes still alive after tough losses. The Cardinals were beaten by the San Francisco 49ers’ third-string quarterback to slip out of the seventh playoff spot. The Rams lost their second in a row, this time to the Seattle Seahawks. The loss ended their chances at an NFC West title.
Both of these division rivals can lock up a playoff spot with a win. The Rams can still move on with a loss as well, though they would need some help. The first matchup between these two team was just a month ago, with the Rams picking up the win, 38-28. Jared Goff racked up 351 yards passing in that game, one of his best of the season. Kyler Murray was held to just 173 yards passing and 15 yards rushing in an inconsistent showing. He did find the end zone three times.
The Rams offense will look a little different this week behind backup quarterback John Wolford. Goff broke and dislocated the thumb on his throwing hand in Week 16. He has since undergone surgery and will miss Sunday’s game and perhaps some time in the playoffs, if they make it. The team has also re-signed former backup Blake Bortles.
Wolford has yet to throw a pass in the NFL, though he’s been with the Rams for the better part of two seasons. Knowing the system and executing it in a game, of course, are two very different things. And Wolford is being tossed into the deep end, with the team’s season on the line.
The Rams offense has struggled of late despite having one of the NFL’s better units. While the team has averaged 127.2 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry on the season behind Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown, it’s been held in check the last two weeks. Injuries haven’t helped. Henderson is on injured reserve, and Akers is questionable, both with ankle injuries. The team’s leading receiver, Cooper Kupp, has been put on the COVID-19/reserved list and may be unavailable as well.
“I’m concerned,” says Jonathan Jones, senior writer at CBS Sports. “Fortunately enough for the Rams, they can still get into the playoffs with, with the Bears having to face the Packers. If anyone is going to tell you that they know, or can anticipate what John Wolford is going to do this week, they’d probably be lying to you. He played for Wake Forest, but he has not accrued an NFL stat. Now we’re going to hear and have heard from folks within the Rams organization that say listen, this guy’s gonna be ready for whatever happens, whatever comes at him. But you have to be optimistic if you’re the Rams, and you’ve seen the crisis. And I get that. But without Cooper Kupp, who would be a backup quarterback’s best friend, it’s going to be difficult.”
The team’s best offense this Sunday might be a stellar defense. Aaron Donald and company lead the league in yardage allowed, giving up just 286.5 yards per game. They’re strong against the run and the pass, and allow under 20 points per game. The Rams have 49 sacks on the season, the second most in the NFL, with Donald collecting 13.5 of them. Two of the team’s sacks came in the previous game with the Cardinals.
The Rams largely contained the Cardinals in their first matchup, both on the ground and through the air. The Arizona offense is a little banged up as well, with DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald both questionable for Sunday. But Kyler Murray remains one of the league’s premiere dual-threat QBs. And the season hangs in the balance.
“Kyler, if he’s not the fastest quarterback in the NFL, he’s the second fastest behind Lamar Jackson,” says Jones. “And so anytime you’re in third and manageable, you have to be on the lookout for what Kyler is going to do. And because he’s there, anything fourth and short, Kliff Kingsbury, with a playoff berth on the line, he has to go for it, as long as it’s anywhere close to midfield. The Cardinals clearly have the weapons. The ebb and flow of the Cardinals… they’re never as good as they may look one week, and they’re never as bad as they look. But I ultimately do believe that they’re figuring out what they want to be moving forward.”
Whether that includes a playoff appearance for the Cardinals this season will be sorted out Sunday. Same for the Rams. According to Jones, “if the Rams had their full complement on offense, I would say this would be a very close game. I just don’t know if the Rams can generate enough points.”
The Cardinals play the Rams Sunday, January 3 @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.