The Baltimore Ravens head into their "Monday Night Football" date with the Los Angeles Rams on a six-game winning streak. They own the No. 2 seed in the AFC and if they keep pace enough to eventually see the Patriots lose another game at some point, they would own the No. 1 seed thanks to owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Rams, meanwhile, have won three of their last four, but have looked less than impressive in doing so. The Rams are in third place in their own division, and they are a game and a half out in the wild card race. They badly need to keep stacking wins, and even that won't be enough to make the postseason. They need to get some help.
ESPN will televise the game and it set to kickoff on Monday evening at 8:15 p.m. ET. The Ravens opened as 3-point road favorites in a line that has since moved to 3.5 points. The over/under has remained stagnant at 46.5 points, per Sportsline.
That's the environment heading into this game. What will it look like on the field? We're glad you asked. Let's break things down.
When the Rams have the ball
It's long past time to stop considering what's been going on with Jared Goff a cold streak. This is now a nearly full-season trend of considerably below-average play. The Rams have played 15 regular season games since their 54-51 win over the Chiefs last season in a game that seemed like the future of football. In those games, Goff is 331 of 553 (59.1 percent) for 3,924 yards (7.1 per attempt), 17 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 15 fumbles, and a 79.7 passer rating.
In their Sunday night game against the Bears last weekend, the Rams seemed terrified of letting Goff attempt to win the game. They were running directly into the line at just about every opportunity, including on important third downs, and they were willing and ready to punt the ball away rather than letting Goff test the Chicago defense down the field. They were able to do things like this and still come away with a win because they were lucky enough to be playing the Bears. It's safe to say they cannot be that conservative and hope to win against the Ravens.
Goff will have to be able to make some plays on throws that are not within a yard of the line of scrimmage. Given the way he's been playing for nearly a year now, it seems pretty unlikely that he will be able to do so. That's especially true because the Ravens' defense has been getting better and better throughout the year, and the secondary is rounding into one of the best units in the league.
The Rams seem likely to have their top three wideouts back in the lineup this week, what with Robert Woods not being listed on the final injury report, but those three wideouts will all have incredibly tough matchups. Whichever of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods lines up to the defense's left side will see a lot of Jimmy Smith, who is playing at a high level since returning from injury. Whoever lines up to the right will see Marcus Peters, who has been fantastic since arriving in a midseason trade. And Cooper Kupp will be tasked with tangling with Marlon Humphrey in the slot. Humphrey began the season shadowing No. 1 wideouts while the Ravens were dealing with injuries, and now he's just shutting down all interior passes.
If this were last season's Rams, it might be easier to envision them finding success through the air. But what is it about the 2019 Rams that would lead you to believe they could figure this out? They have tried plenty of different things this season and the only time they have really worked is against the Falcons, who at that time were still the biggest defensive disaster in the league, and the Bengals, who are barely a football team. The Ravens are not the Falcons and they are not the Bengals.
So, can the Rams lean on the run game and play keep-away from Lamar Jackson? With the run blocking they were getting early in the season and the way Todd Gurley was running during that time? No way. But if the right side of the line holds up the way it did last week against the Bears, and if their newfound commitment to power and iso runs means they've found a new way to move the ball on the ground that doesn't involve the outside zone concept teams have been going all-out to take away from them, well maybe they can do a bit of that. It still seems likely they'll have to figure out a way to make some big plays, though, and big plays almost always come through the air.
When the Ravens have the ball
Without question, the marquee matchup in this game is the tactical chess match between Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. It's one of the best schemers in the league against another, with a unique offensive system going up against a defense that is as aggressive as any in the league. That Rams defense is of course led by Aaron Donald, the best defensive player in the league and a man who destroys offensive lines with an ease that is unmatched anywhere.
The way the Ravens attack in the run game is actually somewhat conducive to playing against a Donald team. They love to run power off tackle. They love to utilize stretch runs out of the pistol. And they love to leave one defensive lineman unblocked and allow Jackson to read that player when deciding when to hand the ball off or take off around the edge himself. Given how quickly Donald tends to penetrate through the line, there is a decent argument to be made that the Ravens should try some runs where Donald is the player Jackson reads. Read option reads typically read the edge defender, but Baltimore has shown it is willing to do atypical things with the run game, so that's something to watch out for on Monday night.
The Baltimore offensive line has been among the best in the NFL this season, ranking fifth in the league in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards. Only 14 percent of Ravens' runs have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, the fourth-lowest mark in the league. The line creating yardage down the field has helped Jackson, Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill create second-level and open-field yards as well, and the Ravens have ripped off more explosive runs than any team in the NFL because of it. But the Rams have done an excellent job of limiting those types of plays, so the ability of Jackson and (mostly) Ingram to force missed tackles in the open field will be an important facet of this matchup as well.
The Rams could of course key in on Jackson in the run game, forcing give reads on every read option and trying to contain him in the pocket. Jackson will willingly hand the ball off to his downhill backs, who will pick up every yard blocked for them and perhaps more. And trying to contain him is a fruitless endeavor. He is going to break the pocket and get himself downfield at some point. He's too good. And if you sell out to stop his running game, he's got the ability to beat you with the pass, to any part of the field.
The Baltimore pass game almost exclusively runs through two players: Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown. Neither player plays a full complement of the offensive snaps, largely because the team prefers to use Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle as the blocking tight ends, and Brown has both been playing through one injury or another for most of the year and the Ravens prefer to use Willie Snead as a blocker in their run game.
With the two leading receivers for the team being (a) a tight end; and (b) a part-time wide receiver who does not have the widest route tree, how the Rams elect to utilize Jalen Ramsey becomes a question as well. Ramsey has been used to shadow the top receiver on the opposing team more often than not, but the top receivers for Baltimore aren't always on the field. Andrews is more involved than Brown on a snap-to-snap basis just in terms of target rate so it may make sense to put Ramsey on him, but shadowing a tight end is not something most teams do with a cornerback.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Rams 17