March 2, 2024

The math is simple.

If the Rams win their three remaining games, they are in the playoffs.

The Rams (7-7), who hold the No. 7 seed in the NFC, play the New Orleans Saints (7-7) on Thursday night at SoFi Stadium. It is the final home game for a Rams team that to this point has exceeded most NFL observers’ expectations.

But coach Sean McVay and his players still have to close the deal against the Saints, the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.

“Every game is like a playoff game now, right?” defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. “We ain’t got much room for no losses. … Can’t afford to lose any more games. So that’s what makes it fun.”

Since losing to the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 5, the Rams have won four of five games. The only defeat was an overtime loss against the powerful Baltimore Ravens.

“We’ve put together a pretty good five weeks,” McVay said, “and it’s always about how you continue to move forward. … And so we’re looking forward to swinging, man.”

Quarterback Matthew Stafford has led the Rams’ surge. The 15th-year pro has played with extreme efficiency while making several spectacular throws.

Stafford passed for two touchdowns on Sunday in a 28-20 victory over the Washington Commanders.

Now, without a full week to recover, they play a Saints team that is also battling for a postseason berth.

Does it feel like a playoff game?

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford leaves the field against the Saints in 2022 to be examined.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford leaves the field against the Saints because of an injury. He did not play for the rest of the season.

(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

“Yeah,” Stafford said, laughing, “if playoff games were played three-and-a-half days after you played your last game. … We’re not immune to understanding what the implications are, but this is another football game we have to get prepared for in a short amount of time.”

Last season against the Saints, Stafford passed for two touchdowns before he suffered a spinal bruise that ended his season.

The game on Thursday night carries no special significance in that regard, Stafford said.

But Stafford, 35, acknowledged differences from earlier in his career in regard to the mental and physical challenges of preparing for games on a short turnaround.

“Mentally probably a little bit easier,” he said, “physically probably a little bit harder. … It’s obviously different than a normal week for us, which is a lot of times, it’s a race to Sunday anyways. We’re just shortening it by a few days.”

The short week does allow for outside distraction.

The Rams take no satisfaction from having exceeded others’ expectations, Stafford said.

“I don’t think anybody is satisfied at the moment to be honest with you,” he said. “If you are, you’re in the wrong place. … That’s what we’re trying to do as leaders of the team is just make sure that we’re focused solely on what’s going on, what’s right in front of us.

“It’s really a whole lot easier to do sometimes when you have a Thursday game, right?”

Along with Stafford’s surge, the Rams also have been buoyed by receiver Cooper Kupp’s return to form.

The 2021 NFL offensive player of the year appears to have finally put behind the hamstring and ankle injuries that sidelined or slowed him through much of the season.

Kupp is no fan of playing back-to-back games with a short turnaround on artificial turf, and he dispelled the notion that preparing for Thursday night’s game was akin to readying for a playoff game.

“A playoff game is you lose, and you go home,” he said. “That’s what a playoff game is. That’s not what we’re doing here, but that doesn’t change whether it’s a playoff game or a normal game. … Your process, the way you approach it, the mentality you have does not change.”

Running back Kyren Williams has helped set up the passing attack by rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the last two games.

The Rams defense has played well at times but in the last two games has been prone to giving up explosive plays.

Despite the short week, the Rams must fix those issues going into their “Thursday Night Football” matchup against the Saints and the start of their playoff push.

“It makes it exciting,” Donald said of the playoff feel, “and it’s a prime-time game so you got to go out there and do what we need to do to find a way to win.”

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