By Don Wanlass
That was quite a show the Rams put on Jan. 17. It was their first home playoff game at SoFi Stadium and they didn’t disappoint a sold-out crowd as they beat the Arizona Cardinals, 34-11.
The Rams dominated from the start, leading 7-0 after one quarter, 21-0 at the half and 28-0 in the third quarter before the Cardinals finally got on the scoreboard.
Driving home that night listening to the pre-game show on the radio, I was surprised to learn that the Rams hadn’t scored a defensive touchdown all year.
That ended in the second quarter when defensive back David Long made one of the easiest interception returns in history, picking off an inadvisable errant pass from Kyler Murray at the 3-yard line and falling into the end zone. It was the shortest interception return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history.
The Rams defense, though, was dominating long before that. The Cardinals total offense for the first quarter was minus three yards. By halftime, that number rose to 40 yards. The Rams, by contrast, had 180 yards at the half.
Matthew Stafford won his first playoff game as a starting NFL quarterback, even though he threw fewer passes than he had in a game all season. Stafford completed 13 of 17 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns. After tying for the league lead in interceptions with17 during the season, Stafford didn’t throw one against the Cardinals.
“I thought he did a great job leading the way,” head coach Sean McVay said of his quarterback after the game. “I thought Matthew … made great decisions, threw the ball accurately, got a lot of different guys involved.”
The Cardinals seemed determined to not let Cooper Kupp beat them and held him to five catches for 61 yards, but he freed himself to catch a touchdown pass from Stafford in the third quarter to put the game out of reach at 28-0. That touchdown was set up by a gadget play that saw Odell Beckham Jr. passing for 40 yards to Cam Akers, who carried the ball 17 times in his first extensive action after tearing an Achilles’ tendon last summer.
Akers and Sony Michel shared backfield duties. Michel got the Rams off to a great start with a 35-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. He ended up with 55 yards in 13 carries as the Rams ran the ball 38 times while throwing only 18 passes.
Defensively, the Rams were stifling, especially in the first half. The Cardinals were 0-for-9 in third down efficiency. Murray was intercepted twice and also sacked twice.
The Rams still have a tough playoff road ahead of them. This week they get the defending Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady on the road Jan. 23 at noon.
The Rams defeated the Buccaneers 34-24 at SoFi earlier this year. Last year, they defeated the Bucs 27-24 in Tampa Bay. Neither game was in the playoffs, where Brady has been 35-11 during his illustrious career.
But the Buccaneers are thin at running back and may be without right tackle Tristan Wirfs for the game.
The Rams have defensive stars like tackle Aaron Donald, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and edge rusher Von Miller to try to contain Brady and company. They got to Brady three times in the first game this season.
They will need to do so again this week if they are to advance to the NFC title game, where they will face either the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field or the San Francisco 49ers, who they have been unable to beat recently.
It won’t be easy, but the Rams haven’t done anything the easy way this season. Don’t expect it to start now.
NOT HIS FAULT: The rumors surfaced again this week. Frank Vogel may be on his way out as coach of the Lakers.
Granted, the Lakers are nothing but a .500 team this year, but is that Vogel’s fault? Can he be blamed for the fact that Anthony Davis has played only 27 games this season? Is it his fault the Lakers have an old roster that isn’t built like most modern NBA teams?
LeBron James is still a great player, but he has never been good at playing assistant general manager and helping put together the roster.
The Lakers were about to pull off a trade for sharp-shooting guard Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings last summer when James suggested the Lakers trade for Russell Westbrook instead. More than halfway through the schedule, we see how that deal has played out.
Also, to get Westbrook, the Lakers had to trade Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and last year’s number one draft pick for Westbrook.
Caldweell-Pope was the starting shooting guard. Kuzma was a valued bench performer, something the Lakers could really use this year.
If Vogel is as good as gone, what about general manager Rob Pelinka? He put this lousy roster together.
And while Lakers fans and critics were happy when Jeanie Buss fired her brother Jim as general manager, Pelinka has been managing the draft since 2018 and the Lakers have drafted exactly one player — Talen Horton-Tucker, a second round pick in 2019 — who still plays for them.
You can look around the rest of the league and see players that Jim Buss and Mitch Kuchak drafted between 2014 and 2018 and put together a deeper roster than the Lakers currently have.
That includes forward Julius Randle (averaging 19.1 points, 10.1 rebound and 5.1 assists per game with the Knicks), point guard D’Angelo Russell (18.6, 3.6 and 7 with the Minnesota Timberwolves), forward Brandon Ingram (18.3, 5.1 and 3.7) with the New Orleans Pelicans), center Ivica Zubac (8, 6.3 and 1 with the Clippers) and guard Lonzo Ball (13.4, 5.4 and 5.1 for the Chicago Bulls).
Think LeBron would like to go to war every night with guys who put up numbers like that?
And that doesn’t consider Kuzma, who was actually drafted by the Brooklyn Nets and immediately traded to the Lakers in 2017, or Jordan Clarkson, who was drafted by the Washington Wizards and then traded to the Lakers in 2014, nor Alex Caruso, who was signed by Kupchak and Buss in the summer of 2017 after failing to stick with either the Philadelphia 76ers and Oklahoma City Thunder the year before.
Those are eight NBA-caliber players the Lakers have let slip through their hands in the last five years.
No one could have foreseen the injury to Davis, but the rest of the things that have happened to the Lakers so far this year were predictable.
Dwight Howard is no longer the defensive force under the basket he used to be. Carmelo Anthony is a shadow of his former self offensively and couldn’t guard his shadow defensively.
Horton-Tucker and off-season acquisition Malik Moon appear to be solid young players with a future in the league, but they have not shown they can consistently play at a high level all the time.
None of this can be blamed on Vogel, but he still will probably end up paying the price for the Lakers’ awful season.