INGLEWOOD — Rams coach Sean McVay said it probably won’t be strange for him to see Chargers branding on the field and throughout SoFi Stadium on Sunday. That’s how it was during the preseason when the two L.A. teams played each other in August.
But there is one downside to being the “road” team in your home venue. The Chargers and Rams, on the nights before home games, stay in the same hotel. But with the Rams being considered the away team, they were forced to go elsewhere for New Year’s Eve.
“Damn it, Brandon (Staley),” McVay jokingly said about the Chargers’ head coach. “That’ll be different, so it’ll feel kind of like an away game for us.”
The Rams’ real challenge for Sunday’s L.A. showdown will be playing against Chargers star quarterback Justin Herbert and his talented receiving corps that features Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Herbert has had a historic start to his NFL career, setting several records during his first three seasons, and now he has the Chargers in the playoffs after they clinched a spot with Monday’s win against the Indianapolis Colts.
“They can beat you in a lot of different ways,” McVay said. “I’ve seen a quarterback that is doing things that he’s in rarefied air in terms of early on in his career, and he seems like he’s got a great way about himself too, which is why his teammates seem like they love him, and does a great job in a lot of different things.”
McVay using “rarefied air” might be the ultimate sign of respect, and Rams middle linebacker Bobby Wagner likely feels the same way about Herbert’s vast skill set. But what truly impressed Wagner about Herbert is how he managed to keep his team afloat amid several injuries this season, which the Rams can relate to with many of their best players currently on injured reserve.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of growth since last year to this year,” Wagner said. “I think there’s been a lot of phases throughout the season, but of late he’s been playing really, really well. He’s a guy that can make pretty much every throw.
“There’s not too many quarterbacks that can roll out to the right and then throw across their body, across the field, accurate and 60-plus yards down the field. It’s a guy that they trust, a guy that I have a respect for, and it’s going to be fun playing against him.”
Herbert’s stellar performances, especially in crunch time, along with a surging Chargers’ defense led to them winning three consecutive games versus the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans and Colts to punch a ticket into the playoffs with two games left in the regular season.
The Rams (5-10) can still play spoiler Sunday. The Chargers (9-6) are fighting for playoff positioning, with the Baltimore Ravens only one game ahead for the fifth seed and the right to play the AFC South champion, which might be the 7-8 Jacksonville Jaguars. The Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals are currently the top three teams, respectively, in the AFC.
“Now that they’ve got their full cast of characters out there, they’re a real problem to deal with,” McVay said about the Chargers.
The Rams won’t be defending their Super Bowl title in the postseason, having once lost six consecutive games and being officially eliminated from playoff contention after losing to the Green Bay Packers in Week 15.
But the Rams have won two of their past three games since Baker Mayfield arrived and took over as the starting quarterback. Mayfield had a memorable Rams debut by orchestrating a fourth-quarter comeback win against the Las Vegas Raiders on Dec. 8.
Last week, the Rams had their best overall performance with a dominant 51-14 victory versus the Denver Broncos. Mayfield has displayed strong chemistry with his playmakers and appears comfortable in the Rams’ offense. He had only four incompletions versus the Broncos, partly because the offensive line had one of its best performances of the season and allowed only one hit on Mayfield.
But the Chargers are coming off a seven-sack game against the Colts and will see the return of Joey Bosa to pair with Khalil Mack. Bosa, who hasn’t played since Week 3, was activated from injured reserve Friday.
“They’re creating a lot of plays being able to be multiple, just giving guys different looks and being able to hold some of the disguises and blitzes,” Mayfield said about the Chargers’ defense. “They’ve created a lot of plays over the past few weeks. Obviously, clinching the playoffs they’ve been on a roll and (have) been playing complementary football, so we’ve got to be ready for a great challenge.”
With the way Mayfield has played, the soon-to-be free agent will likely have interest from quarterback-needy teams in the offseason. He could also decide to stay with the Rams, but they’re committed to injured starting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
“I really haven’t given it much thought, to be honest with you,” Mayfield said about his future. “Just trying to roll with it one day at a time, but yeah, we’ll see. It should be interesting, but all that doesn’t start until March anyways, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Probably no one predicted a Mayfield vs. Herbert showdown on New Year’s Day with the Rams eliminated from postseason contention, but both teams have been playing their best football of the season.
Sunday could be an intriguing matchup with a pair of entertaining quarterbacks.
“I think Justin’s a baller,” Mayfield said. “What he’s been able to do so far in his career is nothing short of spectacular. So, he’s been fun to watch.”