For the first time since January 4, 1986, the Los Angeles Rams had the privilege of hosting a playoff game. In Los Angeles’ previous postseason experience, the Rams rode legendary running back Eric Dickerson’s two rushing touchdowns and playoff record 248 rushing yards, to a 20-0 divisional round victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Over 30 years later, and with a potentially legendary running back in Todd Gurley, this rendition of the Los Angeles Rams could not emulate the success of their predecessors. In the 2017 wildcard round, the Atlanta Falcons forced the Rams to turn away from Gurley, who is in legitimate conversation for NFL MVP, ultimately ending Los Angeles’ playoff experience with a 26-13 wire-to-wire victory.
So, how did a Rams offense that led the league in scoring with 30 points a game, get held to a paltry 13 points? The trouble began on special teams, where two fumbles turned into 10 quick Falcons points.
The first fumble came in the first quarter after Los Angeles forced the Falcons into a three-and-out. Blake Countess muffed the ensuing punt, which Atlanta recovered at the Rams’ 17 yard line. Countess’ error accounted for only three points, however, as Los Angeles’ defense was able to hold the Falcons to just six yards.
Another Atlanta field goal on the team’s next possession made the score 6-0, a deficit that was by no means insurmountable for Los Angeles’ prolific offense. Unfortunately, it didn’t get the chance to see the field before the Falcons scored again. Rams return man Pharoh Cooper brought the kick to the Los Angeles 28 yard line, before losing the ball. Atlanta recovered it at the 32 yard line, and with just under 12 minutes left to play in the second quarter, Devonta Freeman was scampering into the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown run to make the score 13-0.
Now, it was the Rams turn to go on a run. With over five minutes left before halftime, Gurley carried the ball twice for 30 yards, while Jared Goff connected with rookie receiver Cooper Kupp twice for 29 yards. 15 of Kupp’s yards came on a touchdown pass that capped off the seven-play, 79-yard drive.
Just like that, it was 13-7, and the Rams seemed to be turning the tide of the game in their favor. Their following possession would cut the deficit further, as Sam Ficken nailed a 35-yard field goal in the waining seconds of the half. Los Angeles headed to the locker rooms down 13-10.
Atlanta was able to kill any momentum the Rams felt they had gained, as the away team began the second half with an eight minute drive that culminated in a 25-yard field goal from Matt Bryant. If Los Angeles could have stopped Matt Ryan from converting a fourth-and-one quarterback sneak, they would have saved four minutes.
The Rams could only gain 28 yards on their next drive before giving the ball back to Atlanta. The Falcons thanked the home team for this favor by scoring another field goal, making the game 19-10.
Gurley did all he could to help his team put points on the board at the start of the fourth quarter, gaining 47 yards on two carries. The result of this possession would be a 32-yard Ficken field goal that brought the Rams within six points. A stop on defense may have swung the game in Los Angeles’ favor. This was not meant to be, however.
In five plays, Atlanta was able to go 24 yards. Then, Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu on a screen pass, which the receiver took 52-yards to the Los Angeles 10 yard line. Two plays later, Ryan found Julio Jones on an 8-yard touchdown pass to create the final score of 26-13.
Pinpointing what went wrong begins with the two special teams fumbles. They instantly put the Rams in a two score deficit, making Goff pass more than he was used to. During the regular season, the second year signal caller threw 30 passes per game. Against Atlanta, he threw the ball 45 times.
That’s not to say Goff couldn’t handle the increased workload. He ended the game 24-45 for 259 yards and a touchdown. The real problem with the higher pass attempts is that Gurley only carried the ball 14 times, whereas, he averaged 18 carries per game in the regular season. Gurley did make the most of his limited carries, amassing 101 rushing yards. He seemed to be shredding Atlanta’s rush defense, so it hard not to speculate what he could have achieved with more touches.
Los Angeles’ much talked about revamped offensive line also didn’t play up to their regular season standards. The unit allowed Goff to be sacked three times, after allowing just 1.75 sacks per game before the playoffs.
Outside of Sanu’s 52-yard catch and run, the Rams’ defense played the same as they had all year. Ryan’s 218 yards was right at Los Angeles’ regular season average of 217 passing yards allowed per game. In the same vein, Atlanta’s 124 total rushing yards were right at the Rams’ average of 122 rushing yards allowed per game.
What it truly boils down to is that the Rams are a young team that allowed the postseason stage to get the better of them. They made key mistakes that forced them out of their offense, and the defense allowed an eventually game sealing big play on a screen that could have easily been stopped.
Los Angeles has a lot of promise, though, and this loss doesn’t take away from that. Sean McVay just wrapped up his first year as a head coach, Gurley is already an MVP candidate at 23-years old, and Goff made major strides in his sophomore season.
Barring any unforeseen lapses, the Rams should find themselves in the playoffs next season. This time around, they’ll be going in with postseason experience under their belts. In the end, the Los Angeles’ loss can be seen as growing pains in this young team’s maturation process, and fans should be excited they can watch the Rams growing up on the gridiron.