Rams, Saints make dramatic improvement in one season

Updated November 24, 2017 - 12:50 pm

Thanksgiving signals the dropping of the NFL’s championship gauntlet. Or in the case of the Dallas Cowboys and several other pretenders, the dropping of the phrase “search for a new head coach” into the headlines.

Let’s first focus on the Super Bowl push, and we begin in Los Angeles. Sunday’s featured attraction has the Rams hosting the Saints, who have won eight straight. Based on points per game, this matchup features the league’s most improved offense vs. the most improved defense.

A year ago, the pathetic Rams offense averaged 14 points. They have more than doubled that to 30 points this season, moving from last to first in the NFL.

Obviously the hiring of coach Sean McVay and the improvement of quarterback Jared Goff are the biggest reasons. But you can’t overlook the signings of left tackle Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals and center John Sullivan from the Redskins. Both have solidified the offensive line.

But be careful before you jump on the Rams and lay the 2½ points in this game, because they will be without wide receiver Robert Woods. They will have to rely on Sammy Watkins to be the deep threat, along with contributions from talented rookie Cooper Kupp and a steady dose of running back Todd Gurley.

The Saints’ improvement on defense might be hurt dramatically by injuries this week. Their outstanding first-round draft choice, Marshon Lattimore, has been a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. But he and fellow cornerback Ken Crawley were conspicuous by their absences from practice this week.

New Orleans has had five defensive coordinators since 2008, but current coordinator Dennis Allen is doing an excellent job. A year ago, the Saints were allowing 28 points a game. They have reduced that to 20 this season.

Moving slightly south of the Coliseum, we offer a tip of the fedora to the Chargers. Their playoff hopes are soaring after they demolished the Cowboys 28-6 on Thursday. Since losing their first four games, the Chargers have won five of seven.

Let’s go up the coast to San Francisco. The 49ers come off their bye to host the injury-riddled Seahawks, who are 6½-point favorites. Newly acquired Jimmy Garoppolo waits in the wings, but for now C.J. Beathard remains the Niners’ quarterback.

On the other side of the bay, the reeling Raiders are 5-point favorites against the visiting Broncos. Both teams have undergone major changes this week. The Raiders fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and elevated John Pagano. The Broncos have turned to young quarterback Paxton Lynch after they dumped offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and promoted Bill Musgrave.

There is no doubt the Raiders and Broncos have been major disappointments in the AFC West, and that’s why Oakland coach Jack Del Rio and Denver coach Vance Joseph are on the clock. It isn’t likely that Broncos boss John Elway will change coaches after one season, but it has been a horrible stretch for Denver. Del Rio certainly isn’t safe, not when the Raiders were expected to contend for the AFC West title.

There’s other coaches who might be looking for jobs next year, including the Browns’ Hue Jackson, the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis, the Colts’ Chuck Pagano, the Giants’ Ben McAdoo, the Bears’ John Fox, the Buccaneers’ Dirk Koetter and the Cardinals’ Bruce Arians.

Del Rio badly needs wins down the stretch. So do the Jets’ Todd Bowles, the Titans’ Mike Mularkey, the Texans’ Bill O’Brien and the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett.

That’s about a third of NFL coaches on the hot seat. With that many going away or on the bubble, you might wonder if there are enough good coaches to go around.

But think back to this time last year. Had you considered McVay a viable candidate? You could say that the job the 31-year-old has done in Los Angeles has gotten a lot of older coaches in trouble this season.

Brent Musburger’s betting column appears Saturday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His show on the Vegas Stats & Information Network can be heard on SiriusXM 204 and livestreamed at reviewjournal.com/vegas-stats-information-network.

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