First-year head coach Sean McVay indicated Tuesday that the Rams, who clinched a division title last week, prefer to keep key players fresh as opposed to fighting for positioning in the NFC playoffs. The Rams (11-4) don’t have a chance at a first-round bye and will either be the third or fourth seed.
“Every single game is important,” McVay told the media from the team facility in Thousand Oaks, California. “But I think it will provide an opportunity for us to potentially get some guys healthier, rest them, give some other guys a chance to step up. How that affects the guys that are healthy that we want to be smart with is going to be determined as the week progresses. But it is one of those deals where I think you might see us rest some guys.”
The Rams would more than likely rest veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan for Sunday’s home game against the 49ers. If that’s the case, quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley II probably would not play either. Sean Mannion is Goff’s backup and Malcolm Brown would stand to get the majority of the carries in Gurley’s absence.
McVay also mentioned inside linebackers Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree as candidates to not play. Other key veterans — such as receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, defensive linemen Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, outside linebackers Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin, cornerback Trumaine Johnson, safety Lamarcus Joyner and offensive lineman Rodger Saffold — could also at least see a limited workload.
“You don’t ever take anything for granted, but knowing that you do have a home playoff game regardless of how things play out, this might provide an opportunity for us to get some guys healthy,” McVay said. “That’s a luxury that we want to try to take advantage of.”
A loss to the division-rival 49ers, who are 4-0 since Jimmy Garoppolo became the starting quarterback, would drop the Rams to the No. 4 seed if the New Orleans Saints (11-4) beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11). If the Saints lose, the Carolina Panthers (11-4) can take the No. 3 seed from the Rams by beating the Atlanta Falcons (9-6).
The Rams are guaranteed to host the first round, and not drop below the No. 4 seed, because they have already won the NFC West. Regardless of whether they are third or fourth, they would have to travel for the second round of the playoffs, to face either the first-place Philadelphia Eagles (13-2) or the second-place Minnesota Vikings (12-3).
The Rams are currently lined up to host the Falcons in the first round, but the Seattle Seahawks are also in the running.
“I think really what we’ve discussed is when you really take into consideration that there’s four potential teams that we can play — all of them are very, very good football teams, and however it plays out, you’re going to be on the road the following week,” McVay said. “When you look at getting guys healthy, knowing that you are going to be able to play a home playoff game, and then you think about kind of the risk-reward, we feel like that’s probably going to be the best decision, is to rest some of those guys for our team.”
Ogletree and Barron, in particular, could benefit from a rest. Ogletree has been playing through a hyperextended left elbow and Barron was a surprising inactive for Sunday’s game because of what McVay deemed a sore Achilles tendon, calling it a “day-to-day” injury.
Resting Gurley could hurt his chances at the MVP. The Rams’ running back leads the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns, but is going up against Tom Brady for an award that traditionally goes to quarterbacks. The biggest concern for the Rams, however, revolves around key players potentially being rusty for the playoffs if they take a game off.
McVay recalled the way the Rams played coming off their bye week, in a 51-17 road win over the New York Giants in Week 9.
“I love the way that our team came off the bye,” said McVay, who also expressed concern about starters playing in the regular-season finale with fear of getting injured.
“When you talk about the timing and rhythm from an offensive standpoint, I thought it was one of our more productive games where we’re hitting deep balls, we’re able to run the football, have a nice little bit of balance, guys are making plays. I think we’ve got the right types of guys that can handle that the right way and understand how we need to practice and what we need to do in the meantime if it is a situation where they’re not going to play this coming week.”
McVay also announced that Matt Longacre, a key rotational edge rusher, will be placed on injured reserve with a back injury. That would prompt Samson Ebukam and Carlos Thompson to step up as backups at outside linebacker for Quinn and Barwin.
The Rams’ new kicker, Sam Ficken, will remain with the team, McVay added. Ficken, an undrafted free agent out of Penn State in 2015, beat out 11 other kickers in a tryout last week to replace Greg Zuerlein. Ficken then missed an extra point and a 36-yard field goal to start Sunday’s eventual 27-23 win over the Tennessee Titans, which served as his first NFL regular-season game. But he recovered to make his next three extra points.
“There was a reason why we signed him — because he had a great workout, his resume kind of going back to what he’s doing in college is something that we felt good about, and we’re going to continue to give him an opportunity,” McVay said. “We believe in Sam. Like we said, we loved the way that he responded. And I think this week will provide a great chance for him to continue to do some things for our team. We’re going to move forward with confidence in him.”