When the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks faced each other for the third time this season, there were a couple of shared expectations: 1) whoever the Rams’ starting quarterback was, they’d have a difficult time against the surging Seahawks’ defense, and 2) despite Los Angeles’ more formidable defensive unit, Seattle had quarterback Russell Wilson. The former proved to be true, but the latter was a shell of himself; the only common thread weaved through these, and other storylines, entering wild-card weekend were each teams’ defense.
The Rams’ 30-20 win during wild-card weekend extends their playoff hopes after entirely missing the postseason in 2019 and adds to head coach Sean McVay’s (and, if healthy, quarterback Jared Goff’s) redemption story, but what it really tells us is defense wins games.
There’s only one question that follows: How far will that carry the Rams?
The NFC West was the most competitive division this year—despite the Rams splitting their final six games and the Seahawks’ offense taking a nosedive. But still, two NFC West teams were able to advance into an expanded playoff field, which left little to the imagination when they faced each other again and again. Los Angeles was not at complete strength with quarterback John Wolford starting in place of a recovering Goff. The team’s own offensive struggles have continued to follow them since Goff’s injury in Week 16 (against the Seahawks). They hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown in their past two games, and after Wolford left this wild-card matchup with a frightening neck injury, the Rams were able to snap that skid with a fourth-quarter drive that ended with Goff finding wide receiver Robert Woods for a 15-yard touchdown pass. By this point, Los Angeles all but secured its win, up 30-13 against the favored Seattle team.
It wasn’t the offense that brought them this far, but the play of a defense led (for all but one quarter) by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. This team’s two stars, who terrify passers and wreak havoc in passing lanes, will take Los Angeles as far as it can go in the postseason. But this season was long, with challenges unlike any other, and the wear and tear of a grueling 18 weeks can catch up to the best of them.
Donald exited the game with a rib injury. He never returned, but he was standing on the sidelines after recording three tackles and two sacks. The Rams were able to hold off Wilson in his absence, but Donald was a large part of why Los Angeles was able to do that all game long; this was highlighted by Donald powering his way through this offensive line.
Then there’s Ramsey, who makes it almost impossible for receivers to bring in the rock.
The Rams were able to keep their momentum up with a pick-six by cornerback Darious Williams and the help of the rest of the defense. The depth and overall talent pushed Los Angeles to the top of most statistical categories by the end of the regular season. The Rams’ top-ranked defense allowed the fewest total yards (281.9) and the fewest points (18.5). They also had the best pass defense, giving up a league-low 190.7 yards per game.
The first test was the Wilson-led Seahawks, who entered the playoffs averaging 28.7 points per game. Los Angeles passed in what turned out to be a pathetic performance from its opponent. The Seahawks were 2-for-14 in third-down efficiency and held to 142 passing yards, which was Wilson’s second-lowest total of the 2020 season. Los Angeles’ defense being able to subdue the Seahawks’ greatest weapon (even without the NFL’s most fearsome pass rusher on the field) is impressive.
Now, it’s on to the next test. If the Chicago Bears pull off an upset, they’ll go to Green Bay while the Rams play the winner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Washington Football Team game. If the New Orleans Saints win, as they’re favored to, the Rams will face the Packers and MVP favorite, quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The latter is the most likely and, if that’s the case, the defense, with an even greater challenge, will again need to carry Los Angeles deeper into the postseason.