NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 3: It’s September, but Rams are the league’s best

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — With three seconds remaining in the first half, and the Rams leading the Buccaneers 14-7 in an early-season NFC showdown, Tampa Bay kicker Ryan Succop attempted to cut Los Angeles’ lead to four points heading into halftime.

The kick sailed wide right.

Rams head coach Sean McVay seemingly unleashed his pent up energy via a moment of exuberance on the sideline.

The event was a clear example of McVay’s excitement regarding a roster he put together. It’s evident the organization believes this is a win-now, Super Bowl-winning team.

The outburst also showcased how bad McVay wanted this win, even if the coach’s answer on the matter felt plucked right from a Bill Belichick press conference transcript.

“It means we’re 3-0,” McVay told the media when asked what the Rams’ win meant.

It’s just September, but the Rams have laid claim as the NFL’s best team in the early going after a 34-24 defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This is a squad with a beautiful new stadium (SoFi Stadium is also the host of Super Bowl 56 this February), a new star quarterback, one of the NFL’s best route runners and slot magicians, an all-time deep threat, and maybe the two best defensive players in the league.

The Rams are built like a top-heavy roster, but their stars showed out on Sunday.

Matthew Stafford went 27-of-38 for 343 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. DeSean Jackson is 34 years old, but showcased why he is one of the all-time best deep threats on a 75-yard score in the third quarter. Cooper Kupp put Bucs defensive backs in a blender, catching nine passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns, upping his total to five on the season and changing narratives regarding him, as he’s the No. 1-scoring fantasy football receiver through three weeks. And on defense, Aaron Donald posted a sack, destroyed a screen, and was overall menacing throughout, as was Jalen Ramsey, who added his confidence in swagger in defending Tom Brady passes from the slot and the perimeter.

When asked if this team can reach the Super Bowl, Donald told The Athletic: “It’s the only thing I’m chasing. It’s a long season, but I think we’re in a good position.”

That they are. This was the second year in a row the Rams had  beaten Tampa Bay, who had come into this game with 10 straight wins dating back to 10 months ago.

Los Angeles got ahead early and won 27-24 in Tampa last Thanksgiving, and that was with Jared Goff at quarterback.

The Rams match up versus Tom Brady’s bunch nicely.

They have a sturdy pass rush, but more importantly, they create inside pressure with Donald and Kenny Young (one sack on Sunday). The ability to push the pocket from the middle of the line, while containing on the outside is a good way of defeating a top-tier pocket quarterback, even if that QB is the greatest of all-time.

In the secondary, Ramsey is the league’s No. 1 cornerback, and his ability to play the perimeter and in the nickel/slot role as a “Star” gives Los Angeles the ability to move him around. One play he’ll guard Mike Evans on the outside, and in the red zone, maybe he’ll move inside versus Rob Gronkowski, like he did some in the 2017 AFC title game matchup between the Jaguars and Patriots.

Opposite Ramsey is burgeoning star No. 2 cornerback Darious Williams. Last year’s fourth-highest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus is on the J.C. Jackson fast track established in New England, where the No. 2 cornerback learned heavily from then best-in-the-league No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

The defense as a unit sacked Brady three times on Sunday, limited Tampa to 2.7 yards per rush, and allowed just seven points to the Buccaneers in about two-and-a-half quarters before taking a 21-7 lead and forcing Tampa Bay into air-it-out mode, which boosted Brady’s end-of-game stat line (41-of-55, 432 passing yards).

On offense, Stafford has the look of an MVP-front runner. The team’s wide receiver core compliments each other nicely.

Kupp, the team’s No. 1 WR, is 6-foot-2 but has the ability to stop-and-start almost like Wes Welker, while also being a downfield threat. Robert Woods is a solid veteran possession receiver, Van Jefferson is a young route-running maestro and the aforementioned Jackson can still get behind a defense.

The team’s Shanahan-y offense with McVay’s own twists, has been a force in the league for the last few seasons, but the unit became stale under Jared Goff.

Enter Matthew Stafford, who excels in the under-center, bootleg concepts and shotgun-spread looks. It hasn’t taken long for Stafford to prove the Rams’ brass right in trading two first-round picks (and Goff) to Detroit during the offseason to get their guy to run their offense.

“I was the new guy coming in and they embraced me,” Stafford told The Athletic. “I’m just trying to be myself every day, be my best every day, and see where that takes us.”

After 12 seasons of personal promise, but uneventful team success with the Lions, Stafford is in line to have it all this season.

He leads the league in Total QBR (82.8) through three weeks, has been sacked just three times in three games (great offensive line play and a solid scheme help), and is second in yards per attempt (10.0), passing touchdowns (9) and passer rating (129.8).

Everything is working.

But in a tough NFC West, the team knows they can’t let up.

The Rams host a division rival, Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals (3-0), next Sunday, which will pose a challenge defensively.

This is also a long season. There are several instances over the years where a playoff rematch leads to a win for the team that lost in the regular season.

Add in the fact that the Bucs have Tom Brady, and were missing Antonio Brown (COVID-19), who could have excelled in the middle of the field on Sunday, and there’s an avenue for another Tampa Super Bowl run in January.

But the Rams are keen on becoming the league’s top dog in 2021. They already are, so far. And they’re just enjoying the moment.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0) (Last week: 2). There’s deservedly a lot of Matthew Stafford chatter, which is fair, because he’s the spark plug, and most important player for this team now, but Cooper Kupp’s ascension with Stafford at the helm has been mesmerizing. He’s been awesome.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 1). They likely would have lost this game regardless, but missing Antonio Brown hurt. Now, it’s Tom Brady week. Brady returns home to New England versus the reeling Patriots. Only because of it’s prime storyline, this may be regarded as the most hyped-up regular season game of all-time. Check the ticket prices.

3. Cleveland Browns (2-1) (Last week: 5). Myles Garrett (4.5 sacks of Justin Fields on Sunday) is primed to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award this season. He’ll have to keep up that pace with Aaron Donald in the fold, though.

4. Buffalo Bills (2-1) (Last week: 7). So much for a regression year for Josh Allen (egg on my face), huh? The Bills’ franchise quarterback had five total touchdowns versus one of the league’s very best front sevens in Washington on Sunday.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 6). That would have been a pretty bad loss in Detroit, but Justin Tucker saved them with a game-winning, longest-of-all-time 66-yarder to win. They have their momentary lapses of focus, and their defense is figuring things out, but there is something special brewing there. They are coming through in the clutch. Lamar Jackson converted a 4th-and-19, first-down pass to get the Ravens into position to win. His confidence is sky-rocketing.

6. Las Vegas Raiders (3-0) (Last week: 8). They tried to give the game away at times, but they persevered. This ultimately became a good sign for them. Derek Carr looks awesome. They have something here.

7. Arizona Cardinals (3-0) (Last week: 9). They are one of the most exciting offenses in the league. But this team has its limitations. We’ll see how they stack up versus a seemingly-superior Rams team on Sunday.

8. Green Bay Packers (2-1) (Last week: NR). What else needs to be said? Aaron Rodgers is a bad man.

9. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 4). That was a tough loss for them. Jimmy Garoppolo has his limitations, but he came through late on that touchdown drive. They just left too much time on the clock for Rodgers.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) (Last week: 3). Their defense is horrible, and they really should be 0-3. But with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, we know they’ll make some sort of a run.

11. Tennessee Titans (2-1) (Last week: 14). It’s only Week 3, and it’s clear that the Titans can sleepwalk to an AFC South title.

12. Carolina Panthers (3-0) (Last week: 14). Sam Darnold looks comfortable, and their defense looks great. It’s early in the season, but they seem like a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NFC. Let’s see if they can keep this up.

13. Denver Broncos (3-0) (Last week: 13). They’re 3-0 versus teams with a combined 0-9 record, but they’ve looked like the much better team in these wins. This is a club with a lot of talent. Let’s suspend judgement on them for now.

14. New Orleans Saints (2-1) (Last week: NR). The Saints dominated the line of scrimmage versus the Patriots, then, they dominated everything else, including coaching and the New Orleans players just wanting it more than New England’s. They are a tough team.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (2-1) (Last week: NR). That was a hell of a win in Kansas City, even though they tried to give it away late. But the pass interference on Mike Williams was the correct call. They deserved this one. The AFC West is the clear top division in the AFC.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: 16). They should beat Philadelphia at home on Monday night, if they are the clear top team in the NFC East.

Next Up: Minnesota, Seattle, Miami, Cincinnati, New England/Pittsburgh

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