The NFL has treated us to an exciting late-season inter-conference clash when the Los Angeles Rams travel to Maryland to battle with the reeling Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore’s season is essentially on the line Sunday. A loss to the Rams wouldn’t technically eliminate them, but it would serve as a major setback in the contentious AFC playoff race. Meanwhile, the Rams could clinch the NFC West title with a win and an Arizona loss against Dallas.
Should we back the Rams in their second road game in a row? Or does Baltimore have one last stand in them? Let’s break it down.
- Opening line: Los Angeles -3.5
- Current line: Los Angeles -4.5
- Total: 46.5
Baltimore is likely without Lamar Jackson again
Earlier in the week, there was hope that star QB Lamar Jackson would return to save the day for the Ravens. Jackson returned to practice Wednesday but didn’t look right. Now, his status for Sunday is in doubt.
Lamar Jackson (right ankle injury) returned to practice Wednesday but moved with a pronounced limp pic.twitter.com/KRWeGm6GCg
— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) December 29, 2021
The good news? Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley should be back under center after missing last week’s game due to COVID-19. Huntley is a Lamar Jackson Lite and has proven to be a capable backup this year. Huntley nearly led a massive upset in his previous start against Green Bay, throwing for 215 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 73 yards and two more scores. It was as close to Jackson as you could probably ask for.
Interestingly, the line hasn’t moved a ton since word got out about Jackson’s status. Perhaps that’s because oddsmakers had already baked Jackson’s potential absence into the line. Then again, maybe it’s a reflection of how much Jackson matters to the spread.
Baltimore will likely have to rely on its power rushing identity to have a chance with Jackson out. The San Francisco 49ers put out the blueprint on beating the Rams: establish the run, dominate the trenches and force Matthew Stafford into turnovers. The question is, can Baltimore execute that plan?
To answer that question, let’s compare San Francisco and Baltimore. The 49ers rank fifth in rushing DVOA, the Raven’s eighth. However, San Fran ranks 12th in adjusted line yards, while Baltimore ranks 29th. Unlike the 49ers, the Ravens have struggled in the trenches all season. That could be disastrous against Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
Matthew Stafford must bounce back
Sunday’s game will most likely come down to Matthew Stafford. While the Rams rank ninth in rushing DVOA, they’ll be going up against a Ravens front seven that’s been great against the run all year. Baltimore ranks sixth in run defense DVOA and is tops in the league in adjusted line yards.
So why does Baltimore’s defense rank 28th in overall defensive DVOA? Their pass defense has been putrid all season, mainly due to injuries. Baltimore ranks 30th against the pass per DVOA. Fortunately, help should be on the way. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young should both be back on the field Sunday. However, this unit is still Baltimore’s weakest link and has sunk the entire defense in 2021.
The question is can Stafford get the job done? Los Angeles has played eight games against teams currently in the playoffs or the hunt, and the results have mixed. The Rams have gone 4-4 in such games, with Stafford throwing 17 touchdowns and ten interceptions in those games, including a few back-breaking pick-sixes. Stafford was awful last week against Minnesota, throwing three interceptions in a winning effort. He’ll have to be a lot better against Baltimore if the Rams have a chance.
Defensively, the Rams front seven will be the key against Baltimore’s rushing attack. If they can dominate the trenches, they could win this game easily.
Betting on this game comes down to how much you think the dropoff is between Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley. If you think the dropoff isn’t that steep, take the 4.5 points immediately. If you think Jackson is a far superior player, you may want to take the Rams or pass. While Jackson is an electric player, I don’t believe the difference between him and Huntley is too significant. At the very least, Huntley offers a similar skillset that enables Baltimore to run its offense normally.
While Los Angeles is the better team on paper, I can’t endorse laying more than a field goal with them in their second of back-to-back road games. I still don’t fully trust Stafford in these spots, and the narrative about how bad he is against winning teams is resurfacing again.
I also think you’ll get a maximum effort from a desperate Baltimore team that’s lost four in a row, with three coming by two points or fewer. Baltimore is also 2-0 as a home underdog this season.
It’s always scary backing a backup QB, but I’d lean with the Ravens and the points.
Pick: Ravens +4.5
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