What a difference five weeks make.
Heading into Week 13, the Los Angeles Rams were 7-4, had lost three straight games, and trailed the Arizona Cardinals by two games in the NFC West.
A Week 13 victory over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars at least stopped the bleeding, but did little to inspire confidence, or cut into Arizona’s two-game divisional lead, heading into a Week 14 Monday Night showdown in Arizona.
But now, with the regular season down to its final week, the Rams have been re-born, and it’s the Cardinals scrambling to wrest control of the only un-clinched division left in the NFC.
The Rams can not only clinch the NFC West in Week 18 but secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Here are the Rams’ Playoff scenarios heading into their game against the San Francisco 49ers.
The path for the NFC West title and No. 2 seed is straightforward: Win, and the Rams are in
The Rams followed up their win over Jacksonville by knocking off the Cardinals to move within a game of the NFC West lead. Three more victories, coinciding with a three-game losing streak by Arizona that started with the Rams loss, gave Los Angeles (12-4) a one-game lead over Arizona (11-5) entering Week 18.
But the Rams still need one more win, or one more Arizona loss, to officially clinch the division. For all their recent struggles, the Cardinals hold the tiebreaker over the Rams, having split their two head-to-head meetings and with a better record in the division.
If the Rams beat the 49ers on Sunday, they claim all the rewards, clinching the NFC West and also locking in the No. 2 seed, based on their victory over the 12-4 Buccaneers in Week 3.
Clinching the division and No. 2 seed gets trickier with a loss to the 49ers
A loss to the 49ers puts the NFC West title back in play, with the Cardinals poised to reclaim the division title with a victory over the Seattle Seahawks. But if the Cardinals lose to Seattle, the Rams would still win the division, although their chances of claiming the No. 2 seed in the NFC would take a major hit.
In the event of a loss to the 49ers, and an Arizona loss to Seattle, the only way the Rams could still end up second in the conference is if the Dallas Cowboys lose to the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday and the Buccaneers lose to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Assuming a loss by both Los Angeles and Arizona, the Rams would be the No. 3 seed if the Cowboys lose and the Buccaneers win, or if the Cowboys win and Buccaneers lose. If both Dallas and Tampa Bay win, the Rams would slip down to the No. 4 seed.
Who the Rams will play in the Wild Card Round is anyone’s guess
If the Rams beat the 49ers, they are the AFC West champs and No. 2 seed. This much we know. What we don’t know is who the Rams would play in the Wild Card Round. The 49ers, Eagles, and New Orleans Saints are all candidates to finish in the No. 7 slot.
Because the 49ers would lose in this scenario, a Saints win over the Atlanta Falcons would knock the 49ers out of the playoffs and move the Eagles to the sixth seed, leaving the Rams to play the No. 7 Saints.
If the Saints also lose then the Rams’ opponent would be determined by the Eagles’ result against Dallas. If the Eagles win, the Rams would play the 49ers for a second straight week. If the Eagles lose, they would play the Rams in the Wild Card round.
In the one scenario where the Rams and Cardinals lose and the Cowboys and Buccaneers win, the Rams would host Arizona in the 4-5 game.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference