SUPER BOWL WINNER
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ 5/1
Kansas City Chiefs @ 6/1
New England Patriots @ 7/1
Green Bay Packers @ 15/2
Arizona Cardinals @ 15/2
Buffalo Bills @ 10/1
The NFL is structured to ensure balance, where possible. It’s an egalitarian construct, where the (mostly) billionaire owners preside over a system that ensures parity through a salary cap, draft system, and scheduling process, the latter two enabling struggling teams to become contenders before too long.
Within the cyclical eco-system there are outliers. The Patriots, under Bill Belichick, have dominated for most of the two decades he’s been in charge.
Well run organisations like the Ravens and Steelers are rarely out of the playoffs. Conversely, teams like the Lions and the Jaguars lurch from disappointment to disappointment, with any success spread thinly over the years; neither has ever made the Super Bowl, let alone won it.
Within this eco system, teams are at differing stages of development. Most of the struggling sides this season were expected to find the going tough – and sides like the Jets, Jaguars and the Texans are the near the start of a multi-year reboot, and unlikely to contend for the next few years. Others are further along the line, such as the Dolphins, who’s disappointing record this season masks a talented roster, with a bright future and they may yet still make the playoffs after an impressive run of wins to arrest the slide. Miami razed their team to the ground a few years back, dealing many talented players in exchange for future Draft capital, knowing that they had multiple holes to plug, conceding that it would take time for them to become competitive.
Conversely, some teams, like the LA Rams have gone all-in on a win now approach. In opposition to rebuilding teams like the Dolphins, the Rams have been dealing away draft picks like they’re going out of style, to accumulate a superstar roster. This approach has the duality of giving up future opportunities to snag the best fresh new talent, but also typically means a lot of pressure is put on salary cap. All-Pro talent contracts are much more expensive than rookie deals or those in the middle of their first agreement.
The Rams upgraded at quarterback this off-season, dealing two first round picks and incumbent Jared Goff to the Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford, a talented veteran who’d been in the Detroit wilderness for years. They’d already dealt their 2020 and 2021 first round picks (and a fourth rounder) to the Jaguars for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, regarded as one of the very best defensive players in the NFL. The move to land another All-Pro Defensive star, Von Miller, from the Broncos earlier in the season cost them a second and third round pick in next year’s Draft.
Other picks were dealt for running back Sony Michel after an injury to their starter Cam Akers in pre-season. And if that wasn’t enough, the most recent Drafts have seen the Rams already short stacked after giving up capital from legacy deals, ironically including the move that saw them trade up to get Jared Goff in the 2016 Draft.
Fast forward to week 14 of the 17-week regular season and the Rams are in trouble, in relatively speaking. It’s highly likely they’ll make the playoffs, but at 8-4, having lost 3 of their last four games, with a match up against the number one seeded Arizona Cardinals this weekend, the Super Bowl contender chat from the early season has dried up.
Critics point to their reasonably straightforward schedule and suggest the only challenging game they’ve won has been against the champion Tampa Bay Bucs, and that was all the way back in Week 3. Their other wins have been against also rans, primarily including the Bears, the Giants, the Lions, the Texans, and a game against the Seahawks side which saw their QB Russell Wilson leave injured.
Rams apologists will point to this stage of last season, when a similarly constructed Bucs was 7-5, being written off left right and centre but kicked on to make the playoffs, and ultimately run the table.
There are signs that the Rams could do the same. Superstar receiving Odell Beckham Jr was added recently, and it’s a buy low/high ceiling deal, not dissimilar to the Antonio Brown acquisition that the Bucs undertook last year. Stafford has a formidable connection with receiver Cooper Kupp, his go to guy when he needs something to happen, rather like Tom Brady with Rob Gronkowksi. Indeed, Beckham could emerge as a big-time threat in the post season, much as Leonard Fournette, another bruised vet picked up by the Bucs, did last year, instrumental in their run to the Super Bowl.
The emergence of sophomore receiver Van Jefferson could be key also. A season ending injury to Robert Woods has been a significant hinderance to the Rams progress, but Jefferson is stepping up, a big play threat that’s been lost with Woods side-lined. Indeed, it was the expansive range of Stafford, including the deep ball, that prompted the Rams to make the move, given Goff’s struggles in this department.
Defensively, a unit that features Miller, Aaron Donald, and a shutdown corner as good as Ramsey (with Darious Williams on the other side another high calibre operator) garners a lot of attention, and that veteran, playmaking ability can often come up trumps in the deep waters of the playoffs against more untested talent, though doubters suggest it doesn’t have the depth it needs beyond the big names. The emergence of Gregg Gaines, who sits alongside Donald, and rookie Ernest Jones, who Von Miller described as the “Kyler Murray of their defense” suggests otherwise.
It’s likely the Rams will have to do it the hard way – on the road for some possibly all through the playoffs, but as we’ve seen already many times this season, don’t be quick to write off a team that’s hit some turbulence. The Rams are still very much in the mix though given how they’ve assembled their current team; this season represents their best chance of winning the Lombardi trophy for a good while.