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Sunday before Wild Card Monday Night Football: What to watch for in Cardinals-Rams

J.J. Watt’s potential return; Battle of NFC West foes and former No. 1 overall picks

NFL: OCT 03 Cardinals at Rams Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2021 NFL regular season is now over and the best 14 teams remain as they head into the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Both the Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans have secured a bye week in the first round as the No. 1 seeds in the NFC and AFC conferences respectively.

While most of playoff games will be played during the upcoming weekend, the No. 5 Arizona Cardinals and No. 4 Los Angeles Rams will play their NFC Wild Card matchup on Monday Night Football for the first time in NFL history.

Taking a look at Cardinals, they have lost four out of their last five regular season games while the Rams did the opposite and won four games during that stretch. In their two meeting this season, they split their divisional series with Arizona winning 37-20 in Week 4 and the Rams winning 30-23 in Week 14.

Sean McVay is still 5-1 against Kliff Kingsbury but the Cardinals have been the best road team in the NFL with an 8-1 record. And the game will be played at Sofi Stadium, the Rams’ homefield.

Will the Rams be able to take care of business at home? Or will the Cardinals be able to right their ship with another road victory to advance to the NFC Divisional Round?

Here are five Cardinals things to watch for in this Wild Card matchup:

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

1. Cardinals are getting healthier on both sides of the football at the right time

One of the biggest reasons why the Cardinals experienced a collapse in the second half of the regular season is because of all the injuries they had to deal with after going 7-0 to start the year. Though he has yet to be activated off injured reserve, it looks like J.J. Watt will be making his return to the football field on Monday having practiced this week for the first time since October 22nd. The list of injuries that he sustained in the Week 7 win against the Houston Texans and his superman recovery to possibly play on Monday are unreal.

Running backs James Conner, Chase Edmonds, wide receiver Rondale Moore, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, and cornerback Marco Wilson are all trending towards playing on Monday night as well. This could be the first time this season that the Cardinals will have Watt, Phillips, and Chandler Jones healthy and playing in their front seven together. In a win or go home situation, this news could not come at a better time for the Cardinals.

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

2. Can the Cardinals protect Kyler Murray from Aaron Donald in hopes of improving their redzone efficiency?

Aaron Donald is widely considered by many to be the best player in the NFL as one of the league’s most feared pass rushers. In his last game against Arizona, he sacked quarterback Kyler Murray three times in route to a victory. Donald has 15 career sacks against Arizona since his rookie year in 2014. His 64 QB pressures are the most among interior defensive lineman.

Arizona’s 44.4 % redzone efficiency in scoring touchdown the last three games is ranked 23rd in the NFL and the third-worst among playoff teams. These struggles are a result of opposing teams controlling the line of scrimmage, offensive setbacks with penalties, and the unwillingness to run the football more without James Conner especially in third and short situations. Cardinals must keep Murray upright and cannot let Donald take over the game.

Houston Texans v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

3. Zach Ertz will be Kyler Murray’s go-to target

Zach Ertz has been targeted 79 times since being acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. With A.J. Green’s struggles of late and Murray’s praise of Ertz in his ability to get open, expect the tight end to be the go-to guy on Monday in passing situations for the Cardinals. However, Murray will need to play it smart because he got himself into a bit of trouble in Week 14 having thrown two interceptions against the Rams in very tight windows, both times when Ertz was targeted. Antoine Wesley has proven to be a reliable weapon of late so he should receive a respectable share of targets.

“[Kyler Murray’s] a guy who wants to be playing for something and knows he’s playing for something,” Cardinals’ head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters on Wednesday. “This is his first shot at the playoffs, and I expect him to probably play the best game of his career. I know he’s going to give it everything he’s got.”

Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

4. Both Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford are seeking their first playoff win of their respective careers

In Matthew Stafford’s 13-year NFL career, he has yet to win a playoff game with an 0-3 record in the postseason. It took Murray three seasons to lead the Cardinals back to the playoffs and he will get his first taste of postseason football on Monday night. Both are former No. 1 overall picks.

The Rams’ successes and failures this year have been dependent on Stafford having played in all 17 regular season games. His 41 passing touchdowns is the second-most in the NFL but he has also thrown for the most interceptions (17) in 2021. The Rams added Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr, Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey, and other veterans in hopes of potentially hoisting the Lombardi trophy this season. The Cardinals did the very same going all in this season with the acquisitions of Rodney Hudson, J.J. Watt, Zach Ertz, and others.

Los Angeles Rams Play Arizona Cardinals at SoFi Stadium Photo by Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

5. Cardinals’ defense against Rams’ offensive playmakers

Stafford’s go-to target this game and every game thus far up to this point has been Cooper Kupp, who led the league in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947), and receiving touchdowns (16) in the regular season. Sony Michel has performed admirably with 973 scrimmage yards but the Rams are now getting their starting running back Cam Akers back from a serious Achilles injury that forced him to miss the first 16 games of the year

In the Cardinals’ first meeting with the Rams, they limited Kupp to a season-low in receptions (5) and receiving yards (64) on a whopping 13 targets. Aaron Donald did not have a sack that game. In their second meeting, Kupp went off for 13 receptions, 123 receiving yards and a touchdown. Donald had a season-high of three sacks. One of the most glaring weaknesses on the Cardinals’ defense has been their inability to stop the run as Seahawks’ Rashaad Penny ran over Arizona in Week 18 with 190 rushing yards. The returns of Watt and Phillips should help in that department.

Overall

For Kliff Kingsbury and his Cardinals’ offense, there should be no reason for them to not convert on third and short situations with James Conner potentially back in the fold at running back and Rondale Moore’s return as the gadget guy on the offense. Byron Murphy, Budda Baker, and Jalen Thompson will need to play at their best covering the likes of Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr, and Van Jefferson. Cardinals cannot continue to shoot themselves in the foot with constant false start and holding penalties especially from their blind side protector in D.J. Humphries.

The Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams game will kickoff on Monday, January 17 8:15 P.M. ET at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Tune in on ABC/ESPN.

Let the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs begin!