THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Until the past three weeks, the Los Angeles Rams' season was on a remarkably calm, straight path during perhaps the wildest year in NFL history.
The Rams had largely avoided significant injuries, major COVID-19 concerns and disheartening losses while winning nine of their first 13 games to sit atop the NFC West.
And then 2020 caught up to the Rams (9-6) with a fury in late December and sent them into their season finale in early January with major problems just about everywhere coach Sean McVay looks.
“I think we’re always in the moment and dealing with what’s going on in the present, so certainly you feel like it’s got us pretty good right now,” McVay said with a laugh when asked if he thought the Rams had been fortunate with COVID-19 concerns and injuries up to this point.
The Rams are preparing for their regular-season finale against the Arizona Cardinals (8-7) this week with the knowledge they will be without their starting quarterback, their leading rusher and receiver, and the emotional leader of their defense Sunday when they attempt to snap a rough two-game skid — their first losing streak of the entire season.
Much of the Rams' season-long good luck vanished in the past several days, leaving McVay hoping his team has enough moxie left to survive this dip, and to climb into the playoffs despite this crazy holiday period.
“You’ve got to be able to handle it and just seamlessly keep it moving forward with what’s important, and those are the things that you can control in a year that has more uncontrollables than ever,” McVay said Thursday. "There’s something to be said for bonding together and being strong in the face of adversity. Let’s go compete to the best of our ability and not be afraid to see what happens if we put everything into it.”
The Rams will finish their regular season with quarterback John Wolford taking his first NFL snaps in place of Jared Goff, who broke his thumb in last week’s loss at Seattle. Top running back Darrell Henderson sprained his ankle last week, and the Rams also could be without rookie running back Cam Akers, who would have to make a superhuman return from a high ankle sprain after just one week out.
Top receiver Cooper Kupp then went on the COVID-19/reserve list this week, and defensive tackle Michael Brockers followed him Thursday. Both veterans aren't expected to play Sunday, McVay said.
“That’s what’s really just unfortunate, is that it’s such a big game and they’re two key leaders,” McVay said.
The Rams have been aggressive about adhering to all COVID-19 protocols, and McVay said Kupp and Brockers “had done everything right, but you realize that some of these things are just out of your control.”
Most other NFL teams had dealt with this helpless feeling already, but it finally hit the Rams this week.
“You want everything to be normal, but it's not,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “That's the reality of it. That's just how 2020 has been to us. You've just got to try to adapt to the changes, and hopefully in the near future, this thing is going to be over with. It's just been a tough year overall.”
Los Angeles' losses to the winless Jets and the NFC West champion Seahawks both were seriously discouraging for different reasons. The Rams would already be playoff-bound with a win in one of those games, but now they need a win over the Cardinals or a loss by the Bears to get McVay's third playoff berth in four seasons.
On top of everything else, the Rams have been forced to take 100-mile round trip bus rides from their training complex in Thousand Oaks for a handful of weekday practices — not because of COVID-19 concerns, but because of the vicious December winds that occur regularly in Ventura County.
McVay hinted that forecasted high winds are forcing him to figure out alternative plans for their final practice of the regular season on New Year’s Day.
“It’s the epitome of controlling and worrying about the things that you can control,” McVay said during the first practice week of his four-year head coaching career without Goff as his quarterback. “You go in with the expectation and the understanding that things can change at a moment’s notice, and you’ve got to have that flexibility”
NOTES: QB Blake Bortles joined the Rams for practice Thursday, and he seems likely to be Wolford's primary backup Sunday. The longtime Jaguars quarterback spent last season as Goff's backup in LA before moving to Denver this season. The Rams re-signed him immediately after Goff's injury. ... Akers didn't practice with his high ankle sprain, but he got a workout on the grass at their training complex. He also isn't expected to practice Friday, but: “I certainly am not ready to rule my man Cam out” for Sunday, McVay said.
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