SPORTS DIGEST: Rams face Saints with playoff berth on the line

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Rams play the New Orleans Saints Dec. 21 with their playoff hopes possibly riding on the outcome.

Both teams enter the game with 7-7 records. The Rams are seventh in the NFC wildcard race, the Saints are eighth. The winner will hold the tie-breaker if both teams are still tied when the regular season ends. 

The Saints are still in the running for the NFC South Division title, tied at 7-7 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The San Francisco 49ers clinched the NFC West with their win over Arizona Dec. 17.

The Rams have won four of their last five games to get back into the playoff picture after falling to 3-6 after losing three straight games to Pittsburgh, Dallas and Green Bay. Their resurgence has been led by the emergence of running back Kyren Williams, a second-year player from Notre Dame who was sidelined during the losing streak with a sprained ankle.

Since returning to the lineup Nov. 26, Williams has gained 497 yards on 89 carries, 5.6 yards per carry, and scored two touchdowns. He also has caught 17 passes for 87 yards and two more scores.

He provides head coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matthew Stafford one more offensive weapon to go along with wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua. 

The Rams young defense has matured on the fly, shutting out the Washington Commanders for the first half Dec. 17 on the way to a 28-20 win.

The Rams knew they were a work in progress going in to the season. Hampered by salary cap issues, they let several important defensive players from the 2021 Super Bowl team leave as free agents, leaving defensive line standout Aaron Donald and a bunch of no-name young players to stop their opponents. 

The defense has improved as the season has progressed and they have allowed the seventh fewest points in the NFC to this point. Only three division-leading teams — the 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens — have scored 30 points or more against the Rams this year. 

That means Stafford and company are in just about every game.

With three games left in the season, the Rams are one of five teams with 7-7 records in the NFC. Only two of those teams will earn wildcard berths.

After the Saints, the Rams end the season against the New York Giants and the 49ers. The Saints face division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta. 

Also in the mix are the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay and the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams hold the tie-breaker against the Seahawks by virtue of their two wins against them this season.

The Seahawks close the season with games against the Tennessee Titans, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals. The Vikings face NFC North division leader Detroit twice and Green Bay. Tampa Bay plays the Jacksonville Jaguars, followed by the Saints and the Carolina Panthers.

With a win over the Saints, the Rams are in the driver seat for a wildcard berth. Only the most diehard Rams fans expected them to be in this position this late in the season.

HAD TO HAPPEN: It took the Spanos family, the owners of the Los Angeles Chargers, more than 10 hours after the Dec. 14 debacle against the Las Vegas Raiders to fire head coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco.

Most of us were wondering what took so long.

The Raiders jumped off to a 42-0 halftime lead on their way to a 63-21 victory over the Chargers. Staley and Telesco were probably on their ay out at the end of the year anyway, but with a no-show performance like that by the players, something had to be done immediately.

Telesco had been on the job for 11 seasons. During that time, he hired three-first-time head coaches: Mike McCoy, Anthony Lynn and Staley. 

McCoy went 27-37 in four seasons and was shown the door. Lynn won 21 games in his first two seasons, but won only 12 the last two and he was gone.

Staley was hired after one season as the Rams defensive coordinator. He never quite lived up to the challenge of being the head coach of an NFL team.

He was on the hot seat after the Chargers blew a 27-0 halftime lead against Jacksonville in the wildcard round of the playoffs last year and lost on a last-second field goal 31-30. 

With quarterback Justin Herbert, wide receiver Mike Williams and defensive end Joey Boza injured most of this season, the Chargers just didn’t have enough to contend in a division dominated by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Linebacker coach Giff Smith will coach the Chargers in their remaining three games while the Spanos family begins another search for a head coach and general manager.

Many fans would like to see the Chargers make a run at Jim Harbaugh, who may be looking for a return path to the NFL after leading the Michigan Wolverines to the top of the college football rankings this year. But Harbaugh is expensive and the Chargers have always been frugal when it comes to paying head coaches.

If they are ever going to make their mark in the Los Angeles market, they will need to hire a general manager and head coach that can work together. If not, they might as well move back to San Diego because they will continue to be next to irrelevant here in L.A.

THE SECOND COMING: More than 300 reporters and photographers descended on Dodger Stadium Dec. 15 for the press conference introducing Shohei Ohtani. 

Ohtani donned his new No. 17 jersey and answered questions through an interpreter without saying a whole lot of anything that we hadn’t heard before.

He did answer the one question that inquiring minds wanted to know: His dog’s name is Decoy.

Showing they weren’t finished with off-season roster building, the Dodgers then traded for starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow and reserve outfielder Manuel Margot for pitcher Ryan Pepiot and outfielder Jonny DeLuca.

Glasnow, 30, won 10 games for Tampa Bay last season. He won a total of 20 games in his first seven seasons in the major leagues. He is only two seasons removed from his second Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and has only pitched more than 100 innings in a season twice in his career.

Margot also has spent eight seasons in the majors, split evenly between San Diego and Tampa Bay. He hit 33 of his career 52 home runs in San Diego and has hit only eight home runs the last two seasons.

His career-high batting average is .274 with Tampa Bay in 2022.

Personally, I would have preferred keeping both Pepiot and DeLuca. 

Pepiot is 26 and has posted a 5-1 record and 2.76 earned run average in 13 starts over the past two seasons for the Dodgers. He is under club control over the next four years with the Dodgers and will be much cheaper than Glasnow, who already signed a five-year contract extension with the Dodgers that will pay him $136,500.

DeLuca, 25, hit .262 with 2 home runs and six runs batted in in 42 at bats with the Dodgers last season.

He hit .294 with 17 homers and 53 RBI in the minors. 

The Dodgers remain in the running for Japanese pitcher, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who has replaced Ohtani has the top free agent on the market. Yamamoto is 25 and is being sought by the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Red Sox, Phillies and Blue Jays in addition to the Dodgers.