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Rams come together in critical win over Cardinals to preserve NFC West hopes

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A victory that seemed firmly in their grasp only seconds earlier now seemed capable of slipping through their fingers, which would have been devastating for the Rams.

They had overcome so much to that point, controlling the game despite losing five regulars to COVID-19 over the previous 36 hours, including All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey and starting tight end Tyler Higbee, whose test results came in hours before the divisional showdown against the Cardinals.

Their 10-point lead with under a minute to play had been cut to seven and now Arizona was 52 yards from a tying touchdown after recovering the onside kick. It seemed like a tenuous moment, but in hindsight it was a symbolic ending of all the Rams had been through.

Rather than blink, they viewed it as a chance to show their mettle, which is easier to do when you have the world's best defensive tackle on your team. With the game on the line, Aaron Donald drew a holding call that negated a 15-yard run by Kyler Murray and then sacked the elusive quarterback two plays later to preserve a critical 30-23 victory that moved Los Angeles a game out of first place in the NFC West.

This is the point where it's easy to delve into hyperbole, being that the season has entered the stretch run. But it is not a stretch to say we learned more about the Rams (9-4) on Monday than we did at any other point this season -- be that during their seven wins in eight games to start the year or their three consecutive defeats that followed. Winning championships is about mental toughness as much as physical. It's about a will that bends but never breaks.

The Rams needed this win to stay in the hunt for the division title and to confirm their belief that they belong with the elites. Remember, it was the Cardinals who bullied them in Week 4, using a blueprint that showed up in other Los Angeles defeats. They got physical with the Rams, at one point calling 11 consecutive run plays in a 12-play, 94-yard possession. The word on the street was they could be had if you put them in a phone booth and made it a street fight, rather than allowing them to move and dance around an 18-foot ring.

"This definitely was a big step toward us really playing how we want to," said linebacker Leonard Floyd. "Our backs were against the wall. We really had to win this game. We came out and played like it was the playoffs and got the job done."

Not surprisingly, Donald set the tone. On the first play from scrimmage, he bull-rushed right guard Max Garcia into Murray for the sack. It would be one of three sacks and five tackles he finished with, not to mention a pass deflection that resulted in an interception when the Cardinals were within the shadow of the end zone. Donald was the AC outlet that others plugged in to. He provided the power that others drew from, allowing the Rams to avenge their earlier loss to the Cardinals.

"That's what the best do -- they play their best when their best is required," said Rams coach Sean McVay. "We talk about competitive greatness all the time. This guy is the epitome of competitive greatness. Really proud of Aaron, not at all surprised. He's a special player, special person. You felt his presence from the very first snap and then to the last one. He was outstanding tonight."

Los Angeles needed him at his best. It's not unusual for teams to lose players to positive COVID tests, but this case was unique. According to McVay, they learned on Sunday that they would be without running back Darrell Henderson, right tackle Rob Havenstein and cornerback Donte' Deayon. And just when they made those adjustments, the team learned the morning of the game it would also be without Ramsey and Higbee, central figures in the defensive and offensive game plans, respectively.

"My initial reaction was, 'You've got to be s----ing me,' " McVay said. "Can't say enough about just the guys' ability to not flinch. You don't replace those kinds of guys, but that's why you have 48 guys that play on game day, and we certainly used everybody today. Really proud of these guys. Proud to be associated with this group and just be a small part."

For a team that had lost just four times all season, there was a lot of questions facing the Rams. The consecutive losses to the Titans, 49ers and Packers raised doubt about their ability to raise their play. It wasn't just the defeat themselves, it was how they occurred, with Los Angeles also losing the physicality battle.

That was not an issue on Monday. Defensively, they consistently harassed Murray, sacking him four times and routinely making him uncomfortable in the pocket. In addition to sacking him on the Cardinals' first possession, Donald also pushed the pocket so deep that Murray was hit upon his release of another attempt. That type of pressure might have been factor when Murray released a pass early and missed wideout A.J. Green, who had gotten behind Kareem Moore near the goal line.

"I can't believe I missed him," Murray said on the sideline, when captured by TV cameras.

He threw for 383 yards but they came on 49 pass attempts. It was a given he would get his yards considering Darious Williams had to move into the No. 1 cornerback spot with Ramsey out, Moore was playing for the first time, and coordinator Raheem Morris had to adjust his calls accordingly. But all things considered, the secondary held up and even kept Murray out of the end zone via the pass.

Part of that was due to the front seven. With Arizona (10-3) threatening in the first quarter, Donald deflected a pass on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line, which resulted in an Ernest Jones interception. The turnover changed the flow of the game not only because the Rams went down and scored, but also because Arizona suddenly looked out of rhythm for stretches from there. But was it the turning point?

"That's a 'what-if,' " said Murray, who also threw an interception in the third quarter that led to a Los Angeles touchdown. "Obviously, we can say that. Probably if we score a touchdown, yeah, it would've been different. But if we do a lot of other things differently, it would've been different. He made a great play."

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford also excelled, which contrasted with his play in the teams' previous meeting. This time he was sharp. Like a boxer, he appeared to set up the Cardinals early with jab-like short passes, which leveled efficient throws. Then he took his shots. Among the biggest were a a 52-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson to start the third quarter; a 44-yard toss to Kupp, whose 4-yard TD catch gave the Rams a 27-13 lead in the third quarter; and a 40-yard completion to Odell Beckham, whose 3-yard catch in the second quarter accounted for their first touchdown.

Kupp finished with 13 receptions for 123 yards and a score. Beckham had six for 77 yards and a touchdown. And Jefferson had two for 58 yards and a score. Overall, Stafford was 23 of 30 for 287 yards and three touchdowns, which is one more than he had in the previous meeting. More importantly he did not have a turnover; he threw one interception in Week 4.

"We had a lot of moving parts and just proud of those guys in the pass game," Stafford said. "They did a great job getting open, making catches because our guys up front dominated the line of scrimmage. That's where it starts for us. Sony (Michel) did a great job of falling forward on some runs. There was the third-and-1 run in the red zone, where it was him and [safety Jalen Thompson] in the hole, he just runs him over for the first. Those things are big plays that don't show up in the highlights, but they're big time plays for us as a team. Just proud of those guys, the physicality they played with."

The Rams have now won two in a row and are firmly in the hunt for the division title, something that seemed out of reach a few weeks ago. But Donald refused to say that they've turned the corner, echoing the sentiments of McVay that they've got to continue to build for the playoffs.

Still, games like Monday night's show that the Rams have that inner something that can be the difference when the season gets short and the shadows get long.

"Sometimes, back against the wall you, you've got less guys than you thought going into a game -- it brings us together a bit," Stafford said. "I thought it was great."

It was only one game, and yet in some ways it was so much more.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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