By Don Wanlass
The Rams and Chargers opened the 2021 season with 4-1 records that included important wins. The Rams defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 34-24 in week 3, the same week the Chargers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, who have represented the AFC in the last two Super Bowls, 30-24.
Those were heady times, with some people wondering what it would be like for SoFi Stadium to host its two tenants in the Super Bowl next February.
Now, shortly past the halfway points in the season, the Rams and Chargers all of a sudden have weaknesses that, if not resolved, could see them both missing the playoffs.
Both teams are slumping lately. The Chargers have dropped three of the last four and the Rams have lost two in a row heading into their bye week.
The Chargers can right the ship Nov. 21 when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football. The Steelers are half a game in front of the Chargers in the AFC playoff race. If the playoffs started this week, the Steelers would be in and the Chargers, one of three teams tied with 5-4 records in the AFC, would be reduced to hoping for tiebreakers to get in.
The one thing that has plagued the Chargers in their three recent losses has been the defense’s inability to get off the field. The Ravens, Patriots and Vikings have dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 38, 35 and 36 minutes, respectively.
The Chargers won the time of possession battle against the Philadelphia Eagles by almost seven minutes Nov. 7, their only win in the last five weeks.
If the Chargers can’t get the ball, they can’t use the talents of second-year quarterback Justin Herbert. On offense, the Chargers could provide more help to Herbert by developing a better running game and by having receivers hold on to the ball more often.
After Pittsburgh, the Chargers face Denver, Cincinnati, the New York Giants, Kansas City, Houston, Denver and Las Vegas.
The Chargers will test the abilities of first-year coach Brandon Staley as they try to shore up both the offense and defense for the final two months of the season.
The same can be said about the Rams, who looked nothing like a Super Bowl contender in two consecutive appearances in prime time.
After being outplayed by the Tennessee Titans 28-16 on Sunday Night Football Nov. 7, the Rams moved to Monday Night Football Nov. 15 and were literally run off the field by the San Francisco 49ers, 31-10.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has suddenly reverted to his Detroit Lions form in the last two weeks, throwing two interceptions in each game. Two of the four picks were returned for touchdowns and both came early in the game and put the Rams in quick holes.
The Rams’ offense took a big hit when receiver Robert Woods suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice Nov. 12. Cooper Kupp may have the most receptions and yards among Rams receiver, but Woods will be missed as a route runner, a player who can run jet sweeps and reverses and also blocks well.
The signing of Odell Beckham Jr. will help cover his loss and the Rams would be wise to spend the bye week teaching the playbook to Beckham and getting him up to speed.
Newly acquired linebacker Von Miller also needs to be worked into the defensive scheme during the off week as the Rams gear up for a stretch run in the NFC which finds them chasing the Arizona Cardinals, with the 49ers not far behind them.
The Rams face the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field Nov. 28 after their break. They then play Jacksonville, Arizona, Seattle, Minnesota and Baltimore before ending the season against the San Francisco 49ers Jan. 9.
In the NFL, eight weeks is a long time and anything can happen.
Both the Rams and Chargers have enough talent on their rosters to regain the form that got them off to hot starts. They just need better efforts than they have produced recently.
RIVALRY WEEK: Once upon a time, the week leading up to the USC-UCLA football game was one of the top attractions of the sports year. This year, not so much.
For once, the Bruins come into the game with a better record (6-4) than the Trojans (4-5).
The Bruins became bowl eligible with its 44-20 win over Colorado Nov. 13 that snapped a two-game losing streak that coincided with the return of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The senior could be the difference against the Trojans, who announced that freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart will start in place of Kedon Slovis, who has an unspecified leg injury.
Thompson-Robinson rolled up 356 yards of total offense by himself against Colorado, completing 18 of 27 passes for 257 yards and gaining another 99 yards on 9 runs. His ability to keep opposing defenses off balance should be extremely useful against the Trojans who have struggled defensively all season.
Dart was impressive when thrust into action Sept. 18 against Washington State. He threw for 391 yards and four touchdowns that afternoon, but suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss the next four games.
He and Slovis have shared duties against Arizona and Arizona State, with Dart throwing for only 198 yards combined in those two games.
Dart is more mobile than Slovis, which could be effective in offsetting what Thompson-Robinson brings to UCLA’s offense.
The Trojans need at least two wins in their last three games to become bowl eligible. That won’t placate the average USC fan, who expects the Trojans to be in the national championship picture every year, but that is the reality for 2021.
Hope springs eternal, though, and Trojan supporters hope Dart gives them something to look forward to the next two years, no matter who ends up coaching the team.