- The Rams will start John Wolford, who hasn’t thrown an NFL pass but was a four-year starter at Wake Forest and most recently was the AAF’s second-leading passer in Spring 2019
Arizona heads to Los Angeles in a game with major playoff implications for the final seeds in the NFC. The Rams currently hold a one-game edge over Arizona and Chicago, and only two of those teams will make the playoffs. There’s a scenario where Chicago wins and the Cardinals beat the Rams where all three teams will finish with the same record, and if that occurs the Rams will miss the postseason on a tiebreak. The other major potential tiebreaker scenario is if both Chicago and Arizona lose, and Chicago holds the advantage there as well. So Chicago controls its own destiny, and a win in Week 17 will put them in, but they also have a path to the playoffs with a loss if Arizona also loses.
Thus, either the Rams or Cardinals could miss out on the postseason if they lose this game, and both have to treat it as do-or-die. That’s tougher for the Rams, who are dealing with legitimate injuries that leave them short-handed. Jared Goff will miss the game, and the Rams will turn to John Wolford, a four-year college starter who played in 2019’s failed Spring league — the AAF — but has yet to throw an NFL pass. Wolford has some mobility as a quarterback who ran for over 1,000 yards in his final two seasons at Wake Forest, but he was also the AAF’s second-leading passer in terms of yardage, throwing for over 1,600 yards in eight games with a 14:7 TD:INT ratio on a solid 63.4% completion percentage while averaging a strong 7.9 yards per attempt. Wolford’s 14 passing touchdowns led the league, and only he and Garrett Gilbert threw more than seven touchdowns in that league, so he was essentially one of two consistently solid quarterbacks at that level.
Part of Wolford’s success at the AAF level was due to a solid supporting cast on a roster that was named preseason favorites to win the league and was tied for the league’s second-best record when the league shuttered. Top receiver Rashad Ross was one of the league’s biggest stars, and certainly aided Wolford’s efficiency. Still, the Rams run a quarterback-friendly offensive system that should also allow Wolford to find some easy completions with potential yards-after-catch opportunities to support the offense. Cooper Kupp will miss this game on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but Wolford will still have Robert Woods and likely a heavy dose of two-TE sets that make Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett key pieces of a passing game that has successfully deployed its tight ends to the tune of 26 receptions on 34 targets for 261 yards and three scores over the last three meetings between these teams dating back to late last season.
The Rams tend to build their gameplans on a week-to-week basis, and in this scenario I’d likely expect them to go run-heavy. That may still happen, but they will also be without running back Darrell Henderson, while rookie Cam Akers looks like a game-time decision. Because of the running back health issues, I’m still expecting them to look to create passing opportunities, ideally utilizing play action rollouts with short throws or an option to run for Wolford. I do think they’ll find at least some success.
Meanwhile, Kyler Murray will gut it out for the Cardinals despite a leg injury that could call into question his effectiveness. The matchup with the Rams also calls into question his effectiveness, as Murray has struggled in three career meetings with Los Angeles, all losses. The Rams have been a strong defense all season, particularly in their ability to limit explosive plays both in the passing game (second in the NFL) and on the ground (first). They will also likely shadow DeAndre Hopkins with Jalen Ramsey, and could force Arizona into the conservative version of their offense sometimes dubbed the “Horizontal Raid”, which has typically been disastrous for the Cardinals.
Still, Arizona’s playoff hopes are clear: win and they are in, lose and their season is over. Both teams will pull out all the stops here, and the line feels fair. But the total is very low and has dropped since open with news of Wolford starting. You can see where either offense could struggle, but potentially competitive games tend to add scores late, and we could certainly get that here. Both defenses are also in play for potential scores or at least turnovers that create great field position to facilitate scoring. I like the over in this one.
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2020 is in the books and we're starting 2021 with the final week of the NFL regular season, as the playoff places and playoff order are finally locked up. Every game is on Sunday this week with Sunday Night Football being the NFC East clash between the Washington Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles. On Sunday we have a number on win-and-in games, where a victory would see playoff football. Nearly every game has something riding on it, be it playoff seeding, or players playing for their futures. It's a big week.
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