NFL roundtable: Rams prove they still can battle for playoffs

The Rams gave the AFC powerhouse Ravens quite a battle before losing in overtime on a punt return. The Chargers’ lost quarterback Justin Herbert to a broken index finger on his throwing hand and the game to the Broncos, virtually ending all hopes of reaching the postseason despite being alive mathematically. Los Angeles Times Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, NFL columnist Sam Farmer and columnist Dylan Hernandez discuss what happened and upcoming prospects:

The Rams ran the ball on their first nine plays and had first and goal. Then they threw three consecutive incomplete passes and settled for a field goal. After that dominant start, should they have relied on that ground game even more?

Klein: When the Rams passed three consecutive times, I tweeted from Baltimore that I could hear the fans in Los Angeles screaming about the decision to stop running the ball. It’s easy to second guess. But Sean McVay was obviously attempting to make a statement by running the ball so many times on that first drive. Seems as if they should have forced the Ravens to prove they could stop it.

Farmer: I agree with Gary. It might have changed the whole complexion of that game had the Rams been able to score a touchdown on that opening drive. When they strung together all those runs at the beginning of the game, I expected them to at least mix in a few play-action fakes. That said, the Rams did have success throwing the ball as well … and 31 points is a lot against that defense.

Even though this was a devastating loss for the Rams against the Ravens, was this still a confidence booster for the locker room with some winnable games ahead? How was the vibe?

Klein: I would not describe it as a confidence boost for veteran players. Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp and others do not measure it that way. But young players who have not been in a game like that will gain from the experience.

Farmer: That had to be a long flight home from Baltimore. The game was a reminder, though, that there’s precious little gap between good teams and the best teams, particularly this season. If the Rams can continue to run the ball and sufficiently protect Matthew Stafford, they’re going to keep their postseason hopes alive through December.

Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) seemed to be like his healthy, elusive self against the Ravens, topping 100 yards receiving after a six-week drought.

(Terrance Williams / Associated Press)

Cooper Kupp had his first 100-yard receiving game after six straight under 50. Is he back? Is he more healthy? What did you see?

Klein: Kupp looked more like himself for the first time since Oct. 15, when he had a 100-yard game against the Cardinals. I would not say he’s truly “back” until he performs at that level for several games. He is still working through physical issues and no doubt will be until the end of the season.

Farmer: There were flashes of the Cooper Kupp of old, and he and Matthew Stafford are getting back into the flow, yet there are still reminders of how the years and injuries have taken a toll. After Kupp turned that swing pass into a big gain down the sideline, and was knocked out of bounds just before the end zone, he was wincing in pain as he climbed to his feet. There’s a difference between being fresh and being functional.

The Commanders are next, and although they traded some defensive stars at the deadline, they’ve been mostly competitive. What must the Rams consider about them?

Klein: The Rams cannot afford to look past any opponent down the stretch. There is no room for error if they aim to secure a playoff spot.

Farmer: Weird things have happened this season. Lots of unpredictable results. As Gary said, there’s very little margin for error, and good teams win games they should win. The Commanders have a bad defense, and the Rams should be able to maintain their scoring spree of the last few weeks. If they’re truly a postseason-worthy team, they need to win these home games.

Obviously a devastating loss to what were very faint Chargers playoff hopes. What was the postgame locker room like in that perspective?

Miller: The sense I got from the players after this game was mostly resignation. I think they’ve come to accept the fact that they just aren’t good enough this season. The math says they’re still alive in the postseason race, but nothing else does. They were business-like and pragmatic and very real about what’s become a lost year.

Hernandez: I wrote in my column how Brandon Staley looked “drained, almost defeated” after the game. My sense was that the feeling was shared by the players in the locker room. Derwin James Jr. said the inability of the offense and defense to play well at the same time was why they’d lost so many close games. Earlier in the season, such a pattern could be a source of optimism. At this stage, I think it leads to a feeling of resignation.

Does anyone have any idea if Easton Stick can handle a start in the NFL? I mean, the guy had two NFL regular-season snaps before the Baltimore game. Any perspectives?

Miller: Once he settled into playing Sunday, I think Stick performed well enough. Head coach Brandon Staley noted Stick’s improved mechanics and throwing on Monday, something the Chargers’ coaches talked about going back to training camp. Coming in after Justin Herbert, any backup quarterback is going to look a little diminished. I suspect Stick will be decent against the Raiders if he, as expected, plays.

Chargers quarterback Easton Stick (2) is chased by Broncos linebacker Baron Browning (56).

Fifth-year Chargers backup quarterback Easton Stick (2) had taken only two regular-season snaps in the NFL before he replaced injured Justin Herbert against the Broncos.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Do you anticipate the Chargers making more lineup changes to see some younger players since it would seem the playoffs are out of reach?

Miller: I wouldn’t expect anything too dramatic until, perhaps, they’re officially eliminated from playoff contention.

Hernandez: I’m with Jeff here. Staley doesn’t have the luxury to prepare the team for the future since he might not be a part of its future.

The Las Vegas Raiders were shut out 3-0 at home by the Minnesota Vikings. That has to give some hope since Stick produced seven points against the Broncos.

Miller: Any time your upcoming opponent just lost 3-0 at home, there should be hope that anything’s possible. If Kansas City needs to win in Week 18, there’s a decent chance this will be the Chargers’ last best shot at winning a game this season.

Hernandez: This will be the opportunity of a lifetime for Stick. I’m really curious to see how he responds. How he plays could determine how the remainder of his career unfolds.

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