From the first play to the last, Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams showed they’re still a heavyweight in the NFC West.
The six-time All-Pro finished with three sacks – the first on the initial play from scrimmage and the last as time expired – while Matthew Stafford threw for 287 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Rams past the Arizona Cardinals 30-23 on Monday night.
“That’s what the best do. They play their best when the best is required,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “We talk about competitive greatness all the time and this guy is the epitome of competitive greatness. Really proud of Aaron. Not at all surprised.”
The Cardinals (10-3) will have to wait at least one more week before clinching their first playoff spot since 2015. Kyler Murray threw two interceptions that led to Rams touchdowns.
Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. both caught touchdowns for the Rams (9-4), who won their second straight, pulled within one game of the Cardinals in the division and look rejuvenated following a three-game losing streak in November.
Kupp had 13 catches for 123 yards, the eighth 100-yard game this season for the NFL’s receiving leader.
The Cardinals had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds after recovering an onside kick. But a holding call wiped out Murray’s long run on the first play of the drive and Arizona couldn’t produce a last-second miracle. On the final play, Donald charged toward Murray and the quarterback fell to the turf instead of getting run over by the 280-pound defensive lineman.
“We had a game plan, we stuck to it and it was fun,” Donald said.
Stafford – who had plenty of protection and time to throw most of the night – hit Van Jefferson on a high-arching pass for a 52-yard touchdown to push the Rams ahead 20-13 early in the third quarter. The veteran quarterback dissected a Cardinals defence that had been among the best against the pass in the NFL this season.
A few plays later, Murray was picked off for the second time. Leonard Floyd tipped the ball into the air, caught it and then rumbled downfield to the Arizona 19. Seven plays later, Stafford hit a diving Kupp for a 4-yard touchdown and the Rams led 27-13.
James Conner sliced through the Rams’ defence for an 8-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 27-20.
Murray finished with 383 yards passing as the Cardinals tried to catch up late.
Arizona’s Matt Prater made his second 53-yard field goal of the first half – moments after Murray scrambled for 16 yards and got out of bounds with 1 second left – to tie the game 13-all at halftime. The six-play, 35-second drive ended a back-and-forth first half that saw both teams take the lead and then lose it.
“Not very clean but I thought the effort was as good as we’ve had as far as start to finish,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Some adverse situations and guys continued to battle and stay in the game, but just not clean enough in any phase.”
Prater opened the scoring with his first 53-yard kick. Arizona was threatening to score again later in the first quarter, but Murray was picked off by Ernest Jones on second-and-goal from the 4 after Donald deflected the pass.
Donald had a big first quarter that also included a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. He has 10 sacks this season.
The Rams converted Jones’ interception into a touchdown when Stafford found Beckham for a 2-yard score. Stafford completed all seven of his passes on the drive.
“The guys we needed to play well stepped up,” Stafford said.
It was Beckham’s third touchdown since joining the Rams last month. He did not have a touchdown in six games with Cleveland this season. It was also the first time he’s scored touchdowns in three straight games since 2015.
NOSE FOR THE END ZONE
Conner scored his first TD from 1 yard out late in the second quarter, bursting into the end zone on a second effort after bouncing off a pile. He has scored a touchdown in seven straight games, tying a Cardinals record set by John David Crow in 1960.
The Rams played without defensive back Jalen Ramsey and tight end Tyler Higbee, who were both put on the COVID-19 list earlier Monday. It was the first game both players have missed this season.
Ramsey came into Monday leading the team with three interceptions. Higbee has 44 receptions for 395 yards and three touchdowns.
The Cardinals are 7-0 away from home but 3-3 at State Farm Stadium.
THIS IS 40
LA’s Andrew Whitworth made NFL history by becoming the first player to start a game at left tackle at age 40.
Rams: LA welcomed back linebacker Justin Hollins, who had missed nine games because of injury.
Cardinals: Arizona activated DL Rashard Lawrence (calf) and long snapper Aaron Brewer (broken arm) before the game. Left guard Justin Pugh was also active, though he didn’t start. ... DeAndre Hopkins and Conner both limped off the field after the game but Kingsbury said he didn’t believe the injuries were serious.
Rams: Host Seattle on Sunday.
Cardinals: At Detroit on Sunday.