By Don Wanlass
The coronavirus may be the toughest foe the Rams and Chargers face as the National Football League enters his final four weeks of regular-season action.
The Chargers face the Kansas City Chiefs Dec. 16 in a battle for the lead in the American Football Conference Western Division and could be without rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater, who is in the NFL’s COVID-19 protocol program.
The Chargers defeated the New York Giants 37-21 Dec. 12 without leading receiver Keenan Allen, who was on the list. Allen has been cleared for the Chiefs game.
The Rams have 13 players on the protocol list, but many of those players could be cleared to play by the time the Rams face Seattle Dec. 19.
The Rams closed their team facility Dec. 14 because of the number of players and staffers testing positive and weren’t sure when they would be able to practice again to prepare for Seattle.
The pandemic also is taking its toll on the local basketball teams. Three Lakers — Talen Horton-Tucker, Dwight Howard and Malik Monk — are in the NBA’s health and safety protocol program.
The Clippers don’t have anyone in the program currently, but forward Nicolas Batum missed several games after contracting the virus. He sprained his ankle in his first game back and is sidelined again.
The Chicago Bulls had two games postponed this week because of an outbreak among players and coaches.
Health experts have said another coronavirus surge could develop as winter arrives and the sports world is not immune.
There are plenty of pitfalls facing all the local teams as their seasons progress. You can’t plan for injuries or illness it seems and the teams that adapt the best to the turmoil surrounding coronavirus protocols will be the teams that survive the longest.
The Rams and Chargers both took crucial steps in Week 18 in their march to the playoffs. The Chargers got past the Giants and the Rams moved closer to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Western Division race with a 30-23 win Dec. 13 that gave a national audience a glimpse of how good the Rams can be.
The game got off to an ominous start with the Cardinals marching down the field for a field goal and then forcing the Rams to punt after three plays on their first possession.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray then drove his team back down the field ready to take a 10-0 lead when the Rams defense turned the game around on a single play.
On a second down play from the 4-yard line, defensive tackle Aaron Donald deflected a Murray pass and linebacker Ernest Jones intercepted the pass and ran it out to the 32 yard line.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford then marched the Rams 68 yards in 10 plays, hitting Odell Beckham Jr., with a 2-yard scoring pass and the Rams never trailed again.
They broke the game open early in the third quarter when Stafford hit Van Jefferson with a perfect strike on a 52-yard touchdown pass.
On the second play after the touchdown Leonard Floyd intercepted Murray, returning the ball to the 19-yard line. Seven plays later, Staffprd teamed with Cooper Kupp for a 4-yard scoring play and the Rams coasted to victory, pulling within a game of the Cardinals for the Western Division lead.
The Rams have a tough final four weeks in front of them. This week’s opponent, Seattle, is only 5-8, but the Seahawks still have Russell Wilson at quarterback and always play the Rams tough.
After that, the Rams go on the road for back-to-back weeks against the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens before returning home for the season finale against the San Francisco 49ers. All three of those teams still have playoff aspirations.
At this writing, there is no telling how many of the 13 Rams on the NFL protocol list can get off the list by game time.
But the Rams survived the Cardinals without star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, right offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and starting running back Darryl Henderson. They should be able to defeat the Seahawks if they get some of those players back in time.
The Chargers will know by Dec. 17 where they stand in the AFC West race. If they defeat the Chiefs — they won the first meeting 30-24 in Kansas City in September — they will be tied with the Chiefs with three games remaining.
The Chargers end the season against the Houston Texans, the Denver Broncos and the Las Vegas Raiders. The Chiefs end with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Broncos, giving the Chargers a slight edge in the schedule.
But the Chiefs have righted the ship after starting the season 3-4. They are on a five-game winning streak and Patrick Mahomes is clicking on all cylinders and the defense has improved dramatically.
This week’s Thursday night game features two outstanding young quarterbacks in Mahomes and Justin Herbert, the Chargers second-year player, who continues to get better.
His 59-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Guyton with 25 seconds left in the first half was a thing of beauty. The ball traveled about 65 yards in the air and hit Guyon in perfect stride as he reached the end zone. It gave the Chargers a 24-7 halftime lead and they coasted to the win in the second half.
They will need more plays like that from Herbert as well as a stout defense to slow down the Chiefs, who have struggled offensively recently except against the Raiders, who they have lit up for 41 and 48 points in the last four weeks.
It’s crunch time in the NFL and the Chargers and Rams are poised to make the playoffs, if — and it’s a big if — they can stay healthy.
A BAD DEAL: Two months into the NBA season and the Lakers off-season trade for Russell Westbrook is not looking any better now than it did then.
Westbrook was once one of the best players in the league, a triple-double machine who could run an offense. But the Lakers already had a player like that — a guy named LeBron James.
Westbrook and James get in each other’s way when they are both on the court together. And the Lakers gave up too much to get Westbrook.
They definitely miss the outside shooting ability of Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who went to Washington in the trade for Westbrook, and by taking on Westbrook’s $35 million salary, the Lakers couldn’t afford to resign Alex Caruso and Dennis Schroder, who left in free agency.
Recent trade talks have mentioned Westbrook getting shipped to Philadelphia for disgruntled point guard Ben Simmons, but Simmons is best utilized with the ball in his hands and James will fill that role as long as he is with the Lakers.
Westbrook’s stats aren’t bad. He is averaging 19.5 points, 8.4 assists and 7.7 rebounds a game. There are a lot of teams that would love a player with those stats, but not a 33-year-old point guard who makes $35 million a year (it rises to $45 million next year) and doesn’t play much defense.
The Lakers will get a needed injection in energy and offense if and when Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn return from injury.
Westbrook meshed with his last two teams, the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards, in the second half of his first season.
That could happen again. But the Lakers can’t wait much longer seeing if that will happen for a third time.
SUPER BOWL EXPERIENCE: One of the advantages of hosting the Super Bowl in February is that local football fans will have a chance to attend the extravaganza the NFL puts on called the Super Bowl Experience.
The Super Bowl Experience is an interactive football-themed attraction that will fill the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center Feb 5-6 and Feb. 10-12. It features a variety of football displays, including a showcase of all 55 Super Bowl championship rings, autographs and photo opps with NFL players, interactive games, football clinics and merchandise.
Visitors also can take photos with the Vince Lombardi Trophy and take part in a virtual 40-yard dash against NFL players.
Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.nfl.com/sbxonsale or using the NFL OnePass app. Attendees must have the OnePass app to enter the event.
Tickets also can be purchased on site at the Super Bowl Experience box office at the South Hall of the convention center. People who ride the bus to the convention center can get 50% off the ticket price by showing their TAP card. Military members and their families also receive 50% off admission.
Tickets cost $20 for adults on Feb. 5-6, and $40 on Feb. 10-12. Kids 12 and under are admitted for free.
Super Bowl LVI will be played Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.