The Los Angeles Rams will travel to Detroit on Sunday for what may be the most compelling matchup of NFL Super Wild Card Weekend 2024.
Matthew Stafford, who never won a playoff game in over a decade with the Lions, will attempt to upset and eliminate the team that once made him the face of the franchise.
The storylines are abundant. These two teams completed a blockbuster deal three years ago in which they exchanged starting quarterbacks. And Stafford, the guy who owns many of the Lions’ team records, returns to possibly ruin the first-ever playoff game at Ford Field.
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From a pure football perspective, though, the Rams can silence the big planned celebration in Detroit. The Lions were expected to be here, but the Rams are rolling into the playoffs after finishing the regular season strong.
Los Angeles won seven of its last eight regular-season games, including a meaningless final meeting against the San Francisco 49ers. Its only loss during that span was an overtime defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, who have customarily embarrassed other top teams in marquee matchups this season.
The Rams lost six of their first nine games and headed into their Week 10 bye looking like this season would just be an extension of the miserable 2022 campaign. But then they edged a Seahawks team that was 6-3 at the time in what ultimately proved to be a pivotal game for both of the NFC West rivals.
Since that game, LA has been nearly unbeatable, while Seattle lost three consecutive games and four of its next six to miss the playoffs. After disposing of Arizona the next week, Los Angeles beat Cleveland by 17 points.
Stafford led a fourth-quarter comeback against the Seahawks and then reeled off 14 TD passes in his next five games.
One of the biggest factors in Los Angeles’ late-season surge was the return of breakout RB Kyren Williams from an ankle injury that caused him to miss four games.
Williams, who may be the Rams’ unsung team MVP, returned for the Arizona matchup and totaled 204 yards from scrimmage and two receiving TDs.
In his final six games, Williams never rushed for fewer than 87 yards. He had six rushing TDs and four 100-yard outings in that stretch, and he finished third in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,114 despite playing in only 12 games.
Of course, the big story all season was rookie wideout Puka Nacua emerging as a surprising star, setting NFL rookie records for receptions (105) and receiving yards (1,486).
Cooper Kupp, who was the MVP of Super Bowl 56, is also healthy entering the postseason, and Demarcus Robinson has emerged as a weapon at the No. 3 WR spot, which seemed unlikely for a journeyman type at the start of the season.
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The offensive line has held up well enough, as Pro Football Focus ranked the unit just outside the top 10 after 17 weeks. The defense has not been special overall, ranking 20th against the pass and 12th against the run, and the team’s 15 takeaways rank 30th in the league.
Aaron Donald, however, still occupied multiple blockers and finished with eight sacks, while rookies Kobie Turner and Byron Young totaled 17 more.
The secondary has been plagued by some breakdowns, as noted by the Turf Show Times, which pointed out that the Rams ranked 29th in pass plays of 20-plus yards allowed after 16 weeks.
Overall, though, Los Angeles has more than just a puncher’s chance to topple the Lions. The Rams are not only entering the postseason with great momentum, but they also have a clear edge in experience at key spots. Sean McVay, Stafford, Kupp, and Donald are anchors of the team that won Super Bowl 56.
Los Angeles can keep up with Detroit on offense, and McVay has the valuable experience of coaching the starting QB on the other side, which he can pass on to defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.
McVay has won seven of 10 career postseason games, while Dan Campbell will be coaching his first-ever playoff game.
Jared Goff was 3-3 in the playoffs as a starter with the Rams, while Stafford went on to win a Super Bowl in his first season with Los Angeles after leaving Detroit, bettering Goff’s playoff win total in one postseason.
The Lions have the No. 2 rushing defense in the league, but Williams will still fight hard for his yardage and help the Rams operate with a balanced offensive attack. Detroit allowed the most passing yards to QBs over the past four weeks of the season, which bodes well for Stafford and his playmakers.
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Los Angeles’ defense will certainly have a daunting task against Goff and his array of weapons. The Rams, however, have been overcoming expectations since the beginning of the regular season.
In the preseason, Los Angeles had a projected win total of 6.5 at BetMGM Sportsbook. The fanbase was highly pessimistic after a five-win season in 2022 and an offseason that seemed to sap even more energy out of the faithful.
Yet after a rough first half of the schedule, the Rams started playing better at the right time. And with McVay and Stafford leading the way along with Williams, Kupp, and Nacua, Los Angeles can at least make a strong bid to end Detroit’s season and interrupt its hoped rise to prominence.
The Rams’ core has been down this playoff road before and should be fired up to defy expectations again in the NFC Wild Card Round.