Looking at intangibles for Rams facing Falcons in Wild Card Round of playoffs
The Rams are a young team with no playoff experience, playing a team that went to the Super Bowl last year. Do intangibles aspects of the team tell us anything about the outcome?
This weekend’s matchup of the Atlanta Falcons versus the Los Angeles Rams has a lot of interesting headlines, ranging from the first NFL playoff game in the L.A. Coliseum since 1985 or this being the team’s first playoff game since 2004. Not to mention, coach Sean McVay’s stunning turnaround of the Rams along with MVP candidate Todd Gurley, and the Falcons desire to avenge their late-game historic collapse in last year’s Super Bowl.
Predicting the game usually relies on season statistics, but statistics do not always tell the entire story. In fact, they are an average over a season, a big-picture view of performance. They are useful for predictions, but sometimes fail because they do not take into account intangibles.
Let’s look at three intangibles about the Rams and how they might affect the outcome of Saturday’s Wild Card Round game against the Falcons.
McVay started off the year with a bang, scoring 46, 20, 41, and 35 points. They lost their second game to the Washington Redskins, when Jared Goff threw an interception at the beginning of a potential comeback drive to win the game. McVay blamed himself for poor play calling and rhythm, saying he panicked. He promised the team it would not happen like that again.
In a hard-fought game against the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 8, the Rams once again had a chance to win at the end of the game. This time, Goff drove the team down the field, taking three shots to the end zone for the win. But if it wasn’t for a drop by Cooper Kupp with eight seconds left, the Rams most likely would have gone on to win the game.
The Minnesota Vikings defeated the Rams on their own field. The Vikings were 8-2 at the time, holding a top seed for playoffs, and have now finished the season as the No. 2 seed. The game was tied 7-7 until the fourth quarter when the Vikings scored 14 points within five minutes and then held the Rams defensively for the victory.
Likewise, the Rams played perhaps the best NFC team in the Philadelphia Eagles. This time, the Rams came from a 14-point deficit to lead in the third quarter 28-24. The lead changed hands five times, but the Rams ran out of time. Yet, there was no breakdown in the fourth quarter as there had been in Minnesota.
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These are just a few examples of how McVay has improved over the season. There are many more examples, from use of timeouts, to schemes, to in-game adjustments, to situational play-calling. He is tough on himself, and works as hard as anyone in the Rams organization to improve. Though he has garnered accolades all season, he has gotten better every game. He’ll have this team as prepared as they have been all season, and his schemes, play calling, and adjustments should be some of the best of the year.
The defense under Phillips
One of Wade Phillips‘ coaching characteristics is that he is less concerned about following a scheme than he is allowing his players to play to their strengths. It is described as a 3-4 defense, but that title does not give the true sense of his scheme. For example, Aaron Donald had never played in a 3-4, yet how Phillips uses him means it doesn’t matter. Likewise, Donald has the freedom to freelance (for example, taking a different gap than his assignment). Phillips allows him to do that because Donald is so fast to the quarterback that it is worth it.
It can take a while for defensive to reach their potential in the Phillips scheme. The players are usually learning a new system. Phillips is also learning the players’ strengths and weaknesses, and adjusting—it is always a work in progress. Like McVay’s play calling, the defensive scheming and play has steadily improved all year.
For example, the Rams’ defense is ranked 28th against the run, yet that stat is misleading since the adjustments Phillips makes at halftime often result in significant limits on rushes in the second half, allowing the offense to keep or gain the lead and win. This steady improvement now shows in full games, such as Week 15 and 16, in which the Rams allowed only 78 and 97 yards rushing against the Seahawks and Tennessee Titans, respectively.
All things considered, Phillips’ defense will likely be playing the best they have all season.
Special teams for Los Angeles has been the best in the league all season, and that should continue, with one caveat. The loss of Greg Zuerlein is a terrific blow, however, because with him, the Rams knew that inside the 40, they had virtually guaranteed three points. That led to a more relaxed performance on offense.
What if the game is close, and Sam Ficken finds himself in position to potentially send the Rams to the Divisional Round? What if the Atlanta defense finds a way to stop the Rams’ explosive offense, forcing them to rely on field goals?
Ficken is an intangible because no one knows. We can assume that John Fassel and McVay trust Ficken to come through, but they can’t know how he will actually perform in the game. He’s only kicked in two regular season games.
As bad as it sounds, Ficken could be the reason the Rams win or the reason they lose. Then again, his performance could be irrelevant, so Los Angeles fans will just have to wait and see.
Experience and rest
Only six players on the Rams have been to the playoffs. The Falcons were in the Super Bowl last year, and almost their entire roster and staff have playoff experience. Will this play a role in the game? Will Saturday night, in prime time, as the lone game on the schedule, in the playoffs, under the lights of the Coliseum, be too much for the Rams? If the team has genuinely bought into McVay’s mantra of “one game at a time, one quarter at a time, one play at a time,” then it probably won’t matter at all.
McVay chose to rest all of his starters last week, except for two on offense and one on defense (some starters did play in limited roles here and there; for example, some defensive lineman came in on third downs). The week off allows the players to heal up and be fresh for the game, but will it cause them to lose momentum or a mental edge? The win-loss ratio of teams who rest for playoffs against those who don’t rest players is mixed.
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The Rams saw no negative effects after their bye week (though they were playing the struggling New York Giants, they put up 51 points). Still, McVay and his staff seem to do a great job of having the team prepared. Most, if not all, of the players believe resting was the right thing to do.
If McVay’s scheme and adjustments allow Todd Gurley to run free and Goff to have a clean pocket, the Falcons will have their hands full.
If Donald has a big game, the defense holds the rushing yards down, and they limit Julio Jones, the Falcons will have difficulty scoring and staying on the field. Sustaining drives will be a key for them.
Finally, if the Rams win the turnover battle, they will almost certainly win this game.
The safe bet on this game is that the Rams win. If the intangibles above go the Rams way, it could be a blowout.