LOS ANGELES — After lamenting the turnovers that created an early hole, the mistakes that short-circuited key drives and the time of possession deficit that made it difficult to get in a rhythm, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff pondered the obvious question looming over his team’s early playoff flameout.
Did the Rams’ playoff inexperience contribute to them falling flat on a night when they had a golden opportunity to win over a market that has been slow to embrace them?
“Playoff inexperience, I don’t really understand what that means,” Goff said.” I think each game is the same. This one has a little more meaning to it of course, but we just did not play well.”
Credit Goff for not using the Rams’ youth as an excuse for Saturday night’s error-filled 26-13 home loss to the reigning NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, but perhaps he’ll feel differently with the benefit of a few years hindsight. After all, there were plenty of times when the Rams looked like a team with a 31-year-old rookie head coach, a 23-year-old quarterback and a locker room with by far the least postseason experience of any of the NFL’s 12 playoff teams.
Two turnovers, five penalties and a slew of dropped passes and errant throws contributed to the Rams squandering their chance to build on the good feelings they fostered with an unexpected 11-win regular season. They bounced back from last year’s nightmarish 4-12 debut season in Los Angeles to win the NFC West behind a youthful, star-laden offense headlined by a blossoming Goff and resurgent Todd Gurley.
With the Dodgers not making a big splash in free agency this offseason, the Lakers staggering through another lottery-bound season and the Chargers, USC and UCLA football all sitting home, the Rams had the Los Angeles spotlight all to themselves for however long their playoff run lasted. This was their biggest, most enthusiastic crowd of the season at the Coliseum on Saturday night, and they wasted it in a hail of uncharacteristic mistakes.
“It’s frustrating because this team was good enough to really beat anybody,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We couldn’t seem to find a way to get the first down to get us rolling.”
The Rams dug themselves a 13-0 early hole thanks largely to a pair of costly blunders by their all-pro return man. Twenty-two-year-old Pharoh Cooper gifted Atlanta 10 first-half points when he mishandled a punt midway through the first quarter and fumbled a kickoff return minutes later.
Cooper said his mistake on the botched punt return was not shouting “poison!” to alert his teammates to get out of the way of the ball. As a result, Matt Bosher’s punt hit Blake Countess’ foot and caromed off Cooper, touching off a mad scramble for the ball that ended with Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds recovering it at the Rams’ 17-yard line.
A determined stand from the Rams defense managed to hold Atlanta to a field goal, but it could not repeat the feat a few minutes later when Damontae Kazee stripped the ball from Cooper as he returned a kickoff. That set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Devonta Freeman, putting Atlanta ahead by two scores and leaving the towel-waving pro-Rams crowd at the Coliseum nearly silent.
“I had a bad game today,” Cooper said. “I take full responsibility for it. You’ve always got to protect the ball, and I didn’t do a good job of that tonight.”
The Rams might not have been so far behind if Goff had gotten off to a better start. The most significant postseason games Goff had played before Saturday night came back in high school, and the Falcons defense proved tougher to solve than mighty Cardinal Newman did.
With the Falcons frequently loading the box with eight or nine defenders to make it difficult for Todd Gurley to beat them on the ground, the onus fell on Goff to make them pay through the air. The second-year quarterback floundered during a tentative first quarter, completing only one of five passes for 3 yards partially because the Falcons’ corners were able to blanket the Rams’ receivers and partially because he was holding the ball in the pocket far too long.
Goff caught fire late in the second quarter, hitting Cooper Kupp for a touchdown pass that trimmed Atlanta’s lead to six and then leading an effective two-minute drill before halftime that ended with a field goal. As a result, the Rams jogged off the field with the fervent belief that the league’s highest-scoring offense was set to explode in the second half.
“We felt good,” Goff said. “We felt real good. We had a little bit of momentum there.”
What happened instead was the Rams’ high-powered offense couldn’t get back on the field. Freeman and Tevin Coleman ran the ball over and over again on two long third-quarter drives that ended with field goals, and a tiring Rams defense, playing without injured defensive lineman Michael Brockers, couldn’t get off the field.
Atlanta ran the ball more than twice as many times as the Rams and held an advantage in time of possession by more than 15 minutes. They all but put away the game in the fourth quarter on a Matt Ryan touchdown pass to Julio Jones that made the score 26-13 with seven minutes left.
“They did what they were supposed to do when they got up,” Rams wide receiver Robert Woods said. “They ran the ball and kept the lead. We had some good drives, but we have to finish drives with touchdowns. No matter how long they held the ball, they weren’t getting touchdowns, but neither were we.”
The silver lining from Saturday’s humbling loss for the Rams is that their young nucleus should learn from this loss and put those lessons to good use next season. Goff, Gurley and Woods should all be back to power what should be an explosive offense, Aaron Donald is also expected to return to anchor the defensive line and the key components of an elite special teams corps are likely to return as well.
“It’s tough right now, but I think we have a good strong core group that we’ve built this year,” Goff said. “We talked about it after the game. We’ll be ready to come back stronger next year.”
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