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NFL playoffs: Three things to watch for in Rams-Lions on Super Wild Card Weekend

Los Angeles Rams
2023 · 10-7-0
Detroit Lions
2023 · 12-5-0

There will be history at Ford Field Sunday one way or another.

The Detroit Lions have played there for more than 20 seasons, and yet the wild-card game against the Los Angeles Rams will be the first playoff game they've hosted there.

Going further back, it's the Lions' first home playoff game in 30 years -- to the week. Detroit last made the postseason in the 2016 season and has lost its past nine playoff games.

And yes, there's another bit of history.

Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford -- two quarterbacks traded for one another -- will square off in one of the more anticipated playoff games of the weekend. It will be Stafford's first game back in Detroit as an opponent. The two faced each other two seasons ago, with Stafford and the Rams besting a then-winless Lions team in Los Angeles. Things have changed quite a bit since.

The Lions have had a dream season, winning the NFC North for the first time since division realignment in 2022 and winning their most games (12) since 1991. They went 6-2 at home and didn't lose back-to-back games all season.

The Rams took a far different path to the postseason. They crawled into the Week 10 bye at 3-6, enduring the rebuilding season many predicted back in August. But something funny happened: The Rams became one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning seven of eight games down the stretch. Their only loss? In overtime at Baltimore.

Both the Rams (Aaron Donald) and Lions (Aidan Hutchinson) have stars on the defensive side of the ball. But this will be a battle Sunday night of two top-10 offenses going head to head. The Lions rank third in total yards and fifth in points. The Rams rank seventh in yards and eighth in points.

And, yes, those quarterbacks are a big reason why, making that storyline impossible to overlook. Will it be Goff who gets the last laugh against Rams coach Sean McVay, the man who traded him? Or will Stafford return to the place where thousands of his jerseys have been worn in the stands and continue Detroit's playoff misery?

Here are three things to watch for when the Rams visit the Lions on Sunday during Super Wild Card Weekend:

1) Lions must be prepared to win without rookie star TE Sam LaPorta. Lions head coach Dan Campbell said he wanted some momentum last week when he chose to play his starters in a game against the Vikings with a playoff spot sealed up. LaPorta's knee injury in the game opened Campbell to questioning -- and the author of one of the best rookie seasons ever by a tight end is officially questionable to suit up after sitting out the first two sessions this week and being a full participant Friday. Campbell said "there's an outside chance" LaPorta could play, but the Lions must be prepared just in case to be without their 86-catch, 889-yard, 10-touchdown standout. They've taken the standard next-man-up approach to injuries under Campbell, but there's no one-for-one replacement on the roster. The other issue is that they'll definitely be without wide receiver Kalif Raymond, who was fifth on the team in targets. The Lions did go 6-1 this season when LaPorta was held to 40 receiving yards or fewer, but he caught multiple passes in all 17 regular-season games. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown figures to be even busier than normal, and he's had six or more targets in every game (including a 19-target, 13-catch game at Baltimore). Jameson Williams figures to have an expanded role, but he's managing an ankle injury and hasn't had more than five catches in an NFL game. Veteran Josh Reynolds can absorb some of LaPorta's production, too, and Donovan Peoples-Jones could get a shot as both a receiver and punt returner. The Rams are a zone-heavy defense and St. Brown has carved up zones all season (1,164 receiving yards versus zone, second only to Tyreek Hill in 2023, via Next Gen Stats).

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2) Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua present problems for Detroit secondary. The Lions struggled to stop elite receivers, such as CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson (twice), so it's scary to think what a healthy Kupp-Nacua combo can do. Stafford has shown exceptional trust in Nacua, who set rookie records in a brilliant first season that saw him as WR1 when Kupp was hurt. The Rams have tried to preserve Kupp, resting him in Week 18, but he was on a mini-heater prior to that, with four TDs and two 100-yard outings in five games. The Rams have other reliable options in tight end Tyler Higbee (questionable; shoulder), WRs Tutu Atwell and Demarcus Robinson and running back Kyren Williams, but Nacua and Kupp hauled in more than half the receiving yards this season. Stopping Williams is a tough chore, although Detroit's run defense has been tight. But if the pass rush from Hutchinson and Co. isn't humming (against an underrated Rams offensive line), the secondary will be taxed with sticking with those receivers. Nacua and Kupp are first-down machines (a combined 101 this season) who can slice and dice you up.

3) Special teams concerning for both teams, but especially for the Rams. The Rams have had a miserable season on special teams, struggling across nearly every unit as first-year Rams special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn has felt some heat. They switched kickers, from Brett Maher to Lucas Havrisik and then back to Maher, but Maher missed an extra point in Week 18, raising their season missed-kick total to 16 (11 field goals, four extra points). Punter Ethan Evans has been shaky most of the season. They've allowed a whopping 15.5 yards per opponent punt return, including the walk-off punt-return TD in an overtime loss at Baltimore. The Rams' return units have been tame all season, as well. But the kicking situation feels shakiest now for Los Angeles, especially heading into a huge game with two teams that have played a ton of tight contests this season. Will it change Sean McVay's strategy in end-of-half situations? The Lions also made a kicker change, from Riley Patterson to Mike Badgley, and he's 4 for 4 on FG tries but has missed two extra points on 15 attempts. Also, Raymond being out leaves punt-return duties up in the air. Campbell suggested Peoples-Jones, who had a 76-yard punt-return TD last year in Cleveland, could serve as a replacement.

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