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Mark Taylor

Football data analyst

Arizona Cardinals (11-6) @ Los Angeles Rams (12-5)

WHERE: SoFi Stadium

WHEN: Jan 17, 8:15pm ET

SPREAD: Rams -4.5 | O/U 49.5

The fourth seeded Rams take on the fifth seeded Cardinals in what should be a closely contested divisional matchup that reprises the two regular season games. Those games were shared and both were won by the visiting side: 37-20 to the Cardinals in week four and 30-23 by the Rams in week 14.

The Rams clung onto some semblance of home field advantage in the playoffs, but overtime defeat to fellow NFC West post season rivals San Francisco dropped them down the seeding order. If they are to enjoy further home comforts in the post season they may need to reach the Super Bowl itself to return to LA.

Arizona will also feel that they’ve squandered an opportunity. Having run off a 7-0 start to the regular season and seemingly destined for the top NFC seeding, they then went 4-6 over the second half of the year. Their losing run in is partly mitigated by the absence of quarterback Kyler Murray, although they did have a 2-1 record during his hiatus. From being considered as potential Super Bowl favorites at times throughout the year, the stock of both teams has fallen to a single figure percentage chance of lifting the trophy.

There’s little to split the sides based on points scored and allowed. The Rams’ points differential is 88 and the Cardinals is just five fewer. Both have Pythagorean wins (winning percentage using the ratio of a team’s wins and losses related to the number of points scored and allowed) worth 10.5 wins over a full season. Both have good, but not elite offenses and both fair better through the air, where they are legitimate top ten units. That translates into the Rams scoring 4.3 more points per game than the defenses they’ve faced typically allow and the Cardinals fare similarly well. They also each have excellent and well balanced top six defenses.

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If we focus exclusively on regular season contests where these Monday night rivals have faced playoff bound sides, we finally find a difference in performance levels. The Cardinals’ 5-2 record stacking up better than the Rams’ 2-5 record in elite games.

The Rams are just an averagely efficient passing team against the elite and run the ball poorly. They do score two more points per game than the average concession rate of their opponents in such games, but they also become very reliant upon quarterback Matt Stafford’s increasingly wayward contribution.

The Cardinals more than match the Rams offensively in elite games, without deserting their preferred pass/run balance and Arizona are amongst the league’s best defensively, whereas the Rams have struggled mightily to contain post season quality offenses. Opposing playoff offenses score five more points per game than average against the Rams, but four fewer points against the Cardinals, although there is the caveat that many of Arizona’s successes are front-loaded in the first half of the season.

Whole season scoring rates fails to split the teams, which would make the home team Rams around a three point favourite, but data from exclusively playoff caliber matches would make the visiting Cardinals the slight preference outright, even on the road.

Both teams have flaws, but take the Cardinals with a 4.5 point start and a likely 27-24 score line in their favour.

Playoff pick: Cardinals +4.5

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