LOS ANGELES — There are so many story lines to this game that it’s difficult to pick out just one or two… so, let’s dive right in!
What do you think the @AZCardinals need to do tomorrow to beat the Rams? @FouhyOnSports breaking down his keys to the game with @katieraml from SoFi Stadium tonight on @abc15 at 10 pic.twitter.com/0acnMiY2rS— ABC15 Sports (@abc15sports) January 17, 2022
First, there’s Kyler Murray vs. Matthew Stafford. Murray will be playing in the first playoff game of his young career. Kliff Kingsbury says he absolutely expects Kyler to have a phenomenal game Monday night.
"I think this is what he's been waiting for, for three years," Kingsbury said. "He's a guy who wants to be playing for something and knows he's playing for something. This is his first shot at the playoffs, and I expect him to probably play the best game of his career. I know he's going to give it everything he's got."
Watch the Arizona Cardinals take on the L.A. Rams in the Wild Card round TONIGHT with live coverage from Los Angeles starting at 4 p.m. on ABC15 News, and game coverage beginning at 6 p.m.
Kyler was asked to respond to Kingsbury’s comments, and he didn’t mince words, saying he was born for this. "I was always raised on 'Win, no matter what. We don't lose, whether it was a race, chess match, getting first chair in band class, it didn't matter what it was. That's just the way I was raised.”
"Everybody played football, baseball, basketball. I knew every player," Kyler said. I knew what they wore. I knew their number. I knew everything about them. For me, watching them growing up, I always wanted to be like the guys that everybody watched. They were usually the best players and usually played the best in the big-time games. If you want to be that guy, that's what you've got to do."
As for Stafford, he’s still looking for his first post-season win, having gone 0-3 so far in playoff appearances with the Detroit Lions.
Stafford has also thrown a league-high 17 interceptions (tied with Trevor Lawrence), including a league-high four pick-6’s. His 27-career pick-sixes ties him with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees for fourth all-time in NFL history. In fact, Stafford has led the league in pick-6’s in four of his 13 NFL seasons. Pro Football Focus gives Kyler a higher regular-season grade than Stafford.
Needless to say, the quarterback dual is up for grabs come Monday night.
Second, the Cardinals defense has to find a way to slow down Rams WR Cooper Kupp. Kupp leads the league this season in total receiving yards (1,947), receptions (145), and receiving touchdowns (16). Slowing him down, or, limiting his production is key for the Cardinals defense, just ask Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph.
“Well, it's going to help us win if he doesn't have a big game, you know, with Cooper Kupp, the volume of catches doesn't bother me as much as the yardage, and explosive plays… and he's going to get his touches. He's a volume catcher, so he's going to have eight to 10 catches, maybe 15 to 20 targets in a game. But the key for us to keep those touches to a minimum of yardage, and don't give him explosive plays.”
Third, there’s the issue of dealing with the Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald. He’s a handful, who wreaked havoc in the second game of the series between the two teams, coming up with three sacks, one pass deflected and three quarterback hits. Knowing where he is, is going to be key to Kliff Kingsbury calling the plays.
When asked about dealing with Donald this week, Kliff said, “We always give it attention, I just think Aaron Donald is a different animal. When he gets going like that, sometimes it’s hard to slow down no matter what you throw at him. We have to play better in that area, we have to have a better plan, there’s no question. They really had us off the spot, had us out of rhythm most of the night.”
Fourth, injuries will play a big role for both teams, but especially the Cards.
We already know that the team’s best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins is out. With Hopkins out, it puts more pressure on the rest of the receiving corp to perform at a high level. James Conner and Rondale Moore are still questionable as well and will likely be “game-time” decisions. If they don’t play, expect Chase Edmonds, Eno Benjamin, and Jonathan Ward to carry the load at running back. But clearly, missing the hard, downhill running style of James Conner would be a tough loss for the Cards offense.
Fifth, Chandler Jones and Markus Golden have to show up and be as dominant as possible. After Chandler’s five sacks in game one against the Titans, Jones all but disappeared for a while. He currently has 10 ½ sacks while Golden leads the team with 11. They both need to put pressure on Matt Stafford come Monday night.
Sixth, the defense must slow down the Rams running attack. Limiting Sony Michel (845 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Cam Akers will be key in order to force Stafford into throwing the ball.
Seventh, Arizona’s offense must limit negative plays (penalties, sacks, fumbles and interceptions) and stay on-schedule. According to the website, Statmuse, the Cardinals are the fourth-most penalized team in the NFL this season with 114 penalties. That has to change in the playoffs, especially since the Rams are the third-least penalized team this season (76).
Eighth, the Cards need to score in the Red Zone. They’ve fallen on hard times lately in that metric, having dropped from nearly 71% through the first 11 games, to just 60% by the end of the regular season.
Kyler Murray summed it all up with these words on Thursday, “Me personally, always wanting to be the greatest, you always have to play well in these games, otherwise you're just not going to be looked at as that guy. I understand the responsibility I have to the team to go out and play well. I'm not pressing or anything like that. But I do look forward to playing in big-time games."
And this is certainly a “Big Time” game.
And finally, the Cardinals have 31 players who have never played in a playoff game before, so settling in and understanding it’s just a game, is going to be important. Cards Linebacker, Jordan Hicks put it this way.
“The emotion of the game, it's different you know, there's no doubting that, so Monday night is going to be different than a Sunday kickoff type of game, right? At the end of the day, it's going to be the team that makes the least mistakes and, you know, can make the most plays. So, if you just focus on the play at hand, treat it like you would any other game and come out with the energy that's going to be naturally there with it. You know, don't try to get too far outside of yourself. Just focus on the play at hand.”
My prediction: Cardinals 33, Rams 28