By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Matthew Stafford was nearly flawless in his first career playoff victory. Odell Beckham Jr. made huge plays as a receiver and as a passer in his own first postseason win.
Yet the Los Angeles Rams (13-5) are headed to Tampa Bay on Sunday to play for a spot in the NFC championship game because their defense came up with a playoff performance that suggests this up-and-down team can hang with anybody.
Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and their defensive teammates held Kyler Murray and the Cardinals to 183 total yards and didn’t allow them to convert a third down in the Rams’ 34-11 victory over Arizona in the wild-card round.
Sean McVay said it was his defense’s best performance of the season – and he knows the Rams might need something comparable to hang in against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
“Being able to hold a really explosive offense like that, to be able to get a defensive touchdown and a couple of turnovers, just so pleased with those guys,” McVay said. “We’ve got a great challenge going against Tom Brady next week.”
After an inconsistent start to the season that was all but inevitable, given the roster upheaval around All-Pros Donald and Ramsey, the Rams’ growth on defense has been steady down the stretch – aside from their latest team-wide embarrassing performance against the 49ers in the regular-season finale, that is.
After losing four starters from the league’s No. 1-ranked defense in the offseason and trying to replace them entirely from within, Los Angeles has gradually found ways to be effective in new coordinator Raheem Morris’ versions of Brandon Staley’s overall scheme.
The Rams also got reinforcements with midseason acquisition Von Miller, who looks increasingly dangerous with each week in his new defense, and even safety Eric Weddle, who ended his two-year retirement and played 19 snaps against Arizona.
“I think we’re just jelling at the right time,” said Miller, who had six tackles and a key sack in the former Broncos star’s first playoff appearance in six years. “We’ve been doing the same thing since I got here, and it just feels like it’s working.”
With Cam Akers and Sony Michel both healthy, the Rams ran the ball 38 times for 140 yards. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but they’re just right for a team that looks much better on offense with a steady ground game. With two backs providing change-of-pace runs, these Rams evoked memories of the 2018-19 Super Bowl team that had a similar approach with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson. Akers’ near-miraculous return from a torn Achilles tendon five months ago was punctuated by this performance with 95 all-purpose yards and plenty of punishing runs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
If the Rams hadn’t dropped three of his passes, Stafford would have gone 16 of 17 against the Cardinals. Akers, Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee all made mistakes that prevented a modest statistical night from being much bigger. So did three Rams holding penalties that wiped out 55 combined yards of offense.
One day after the Rams’ shutdown defensive performance, Morris reportedly was asked to interview for the Minnesota Vikings’ head coaching job. Morris is a two-time NFL head coach who has made the most of a potentially tough situation created by the front office’s financial inability to immediately add veteran talent to a depleted defense. While the defense’s overall numbers are down, Morris’ resourcefulness and leadership inspire rave reviews from his players and fellow coaches.
Well, nobody is actually down on Kupp after he matched his season low with five catches against Arizona. His 61 yards receiving were his fewest in the past 20 games, and he failed to top 90 yards for only the second time this season – but that’s partly because the Rams largely used their unanimous All-Pro receiver as a decoy in the first half. Kupp will continue to be the Rams’ most important playmaker.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is undergoing evaluation on his right ankle and knee, McVay said. His availability for this week is uncertain, but Joseph Noteboom played well in his place. … Cornerback David Long hurt his knee after his interception return TD, but the injury “looks like it’s going to be OK,” McVay said. … Rookie LB Ernest Jones and RB Darrell Henderson both have a chance to return from lengthy injury absences this week, but DT Sebastian Joseph-Day and rookie CB Robert Rochell are unlikely to do so.
4 _ McVay’s total playoff victories with the Rams, already tying John Robinson for the most in this 86-year-old franchise’s history. Robinson ran the Rams for nine seasons, and McVay is finishing up only his fifth season in charge. He turns 36 on Monday.
Beating the Buccaneers will require another standout defensive game. McVay hopes starting safety Taylor Rapp will be out of the concussion protocol, but pressure will be vital to slowing Brady – and that’s exactly why the Rams added Miller to an already robust pass rush led by Donald and Leonard Floyd.
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