In 140 days, the NFL’s two remaining teams will square off at State Farm Stadium with the Lombardi Trophy up for grabs.
But Sunday? Meh.
The Rams are still searching for their offensive identity. The Arizona Cardinals are still searching for the end zone.
“It was a strange game,” said Rams coach Sean McVay, whose team held on for a 20-12 victory despite squandering three would-be touchdowns.
In the first quarter, Matthew Stafford and Allen Robinson couldn’t connect on back-to-back passes near the goal line.
In the second, a scoring pass slipped though the grasp of Cooper Kupp — a rarity, considering he typically catches everything in his ZIP code.
And in the fourth, Cam Akers — on the heels of an impressive touchdown drive — fumbled at the Cardinals’ one.
It wasn’t the kind of confidence builder the Rams needed as they head into their Week 4 game at San Francisco, where they have lost three in a row.
No one expects the offense to run through Tyler Higbee and Ben Skowronek the way it did Sunday. Not that they’re bad players, but when it comes to feeding people the football and explosive plays, they’re lower on the food chain than Kupp, Robinson, Akers and others.
Of course, the first priority is winning the game, and the Rams found a way to do that, keeping McVay’s record in Arizona an unblemished 6-0.
If there was a group that deserved to fly home first class it was the defense, which limited the Cardinals to four field goals and did a remarkable job of confining elusive quarterback Kyler Murray. He ran for just eight yards and threw a whopping 58 passes — more than twice as many as Stafford (25) — but none for touchdowns.
“That team is really good in the red zone, especially with Kyler,” Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “To keep them out of the end zone is big-time.”
The Rams executed that game plan beautifully: Keep everything in front of you, don’t let them throw it over your head, make them earn everything with long drives, don’t let Murray burn you.
Considering the Rams were missing three pivotal defensive backs, they cobbled together an impressive performance, even though this Cardinals team is a shell of the one that got off to such a good start last season.
Not so long ago, the NFC West was the most competitive division in football. It’s lukewarm at best now, with Arizona, San Francisco and the Russell Wilson-less Seattle Seahawks at 1-2, and the Rams looking largely mediocre.
Every year is different, but the Rams under McVay tend to start the season strong — he’s never been worse than 3-1 — hit a flat spot, then find their second wind. But there’s more sputtering to this year’s version.
The Rams were blown out by Buffalo in the opener, survived an epic collapse down the stretch against Atlanta, then held on for a shoulder-shrug win against Arizona. If they’re on the verge of breaking out, they’re doing a good job of disguising it.
Then again, so-so is the calling card of the NFL this season, with 30 teams having at least one win through the first three weeks. That’s only happened one other time since 2002. And there are only two winless teams through the first three weeks — Houston and Las Vegas — marking just the fifth time that’s happened since 1970.
If one player embodied the fits-and-starts nature of the Rams offense Sunday it was Akers, who in the first half had two carries for minus-one yard. He spent most of the first two quarters standing on the edge of the playing field, with his helmet on and ready to go, waiting to reenter the game.
That chance came in the third quarter when on one drive he had gains of four, nine, five, 14, and six yards before bouncing a run around the edge, splitting a pair of defenders like a Brunswick through bowling pins and diving into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown.
“Saw a lot of green grass,” said Akers, who gained more yards on that drive than he did in the first two games combined. “Lot of green grass, and I took it.”
Finally, the offense had reemerged. An identity at last.
The next possession, Akers had a loss of two, a gain of one, and a fumble.
“We’re continuing to learn our identity,” McVay said. “It’s trying to figure out how to best utilize a lot of moving parts, and that’s different than what we’ve had in years past. … The theme of the day was just finishing those drives in the red area where if we end up scoring 30-plus points we probably feel a little bit better. But we didn’t.”
In the land of triple-digit temperatures, the Rams were disconcertingly mild. On a strange Sunday that was enough.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.