At the end of Week 9, we’re just over halfway through the NFL season. The Los Angeles Rams have played eight games and have a bye week now. They’re 5-3 with eight games to go and trying to make a playoff push in arguably the toughest division in the NFL.
The Seattle Seahawks lead the NFC West at 6-2 and appear to be the team to beat in the division. The Arizona Cardinals, who also look like a legitimate playoff contender, stand just ahead of the Rams. Although the Cardinals are also 5-3, their record against divisional opponents is better than the Rams’, giving Arizona the tiebreaker. L.A. will play both of these teams twice the rest of the season and need to be sharp in those matchups to either win the division or clinch one of the three Wild Card spots.
The San Francisco 49ers looked strong to open the season but have been derailed by injuries. Missing some of their key players on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle and defensive end Nick Bosa, it seems unlikely they will be able to compete going forward in this tough division.
If the playoffs started today, the NFC division winners would be the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Seahawks. L.A. would be a Wild Card team, along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cardinals. Teams on the fringes of the playoffs include the 49ers and the Chicago Bears, who the Rams beat in Week 7.
So the Rams have a good chance of making the playoffs, but their schedule going forward looks tough. Let’s take a look at some of those matchups.
L.A. will play Seattle at home on Sunday. The Seahawks seemed like the best team in the NFC for the first few weeks of the season, starting off 5-0. However, they’ve lost two of their last three games. The Rams are playing at home and coming off a bye week, so they have a couple advantages in this upcoming matchup. It’s unclear whether Seattle running backs Carlos Hyde and Chris Carson will be available on Sunday, both dealing with lingering injuries. With extra time for the Rams to prepare, Week 10 is a great opportunity to take a game from their divisional rival.
The following week, L.A. will face Tampa Bay — another tough team expected to contend in the playoffs, currently holding onto the top Wild Card spot. The Buccaneers offense is as talented as any in the league, and their defense is strong across the board, allowing the fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL and forcing the most turnovers.
After traveling to Tampa Bay, the Rams’ most important games include Seattle again and Arizona twice. The Rams have a few breaks in their schedule against depleted teams like the 49ers, the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. These are all must-win games for a team competing for the playoffs.
L.A. likely needs to win one of its two matchups against Arizona, a team that quickly bounced back from the bottom of the league this year and became a tough matchup for even the top teams, like Seattle, who Arizona knocked off in an overtime thriller in Week 6.
If the Rams win the games they’re supposed to win (San Francisco, New England, New York) and manage to split their season series against their division rivals in Seattle and Arizona, that would be 10 wins, almost always good enough for a playoff berth.
This team has looked promising at times this season, but it’s also looked inconsistent. Quarterback Jared Goff was great against a suffocating Chicago defense in Week 7 but turned the ball over four times against an inferior Miami Dolphins team in a blowout loss in Week 8.
The good news is that the L.A. defense has been very strong to this point in the season, allowing the second fewest yards and points per game in the NFL. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a terror for opposing offensive lines and can help contain explosive quarterbacks like Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Arizona’s Kyler Murray.
The offense hasn’t been bad either, although it hasn’t been too special. The Rams balance their rushing and passing games well and aren’t too reliant on any individual players. When Week 7 Jared Goff shows up, this team is capable of competing with any of the league’s top teams. Remember, the Rams were in the Super Bowl just two seasons ago.
Overall, the Rams certainly are a playoff contender, and I would expect to see them playing in January, but I wouldn’t count on them winning the division over Seattle. But along with the Cardinals, the Rams can well attain one of those Wild Card spots in the second half of the season.
Wyatt Allsup is a junior writing about Los Angeles sports. His column, “Running the Break,” ran every other Tuesday.