It turns out the best way to stop the Rams offense is to never give them the ball.
After leading the league with 29.9 points per game in 2017, the Rams managed just 13 against the Falcons on Saturday night. Los Angeles lost 26-13, despite gaining more yards (361 to 322) and more than a yard more per play (5.6 to 4.5), because the team had the ball for just 22 minutes and 26 seconds. That dismal time of possession framed the game, and the canvas was colored by the Rams’ fumbles early on and their inability to find the end zone throughout. Under rookie head coach Sean McVay, the Rams put their 2016 incompetence in the past, but they now must wait until next season to complete their metamorphosis into a contender.
Jared Goff already looks ready to make that leap. The sophomore quarterback completed 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown and looked far better than his stats indicate, routinely hitting tight windows that would have been unthinkable just a year ago.
It’s hard to believe this is the same quarterback that had perhaps the worst seven games in NFL history last season, but Goff displayed the franchise material Saturday that general manager Les Snead envisioned when he drafted him first overall in 2016.
Despite Goff’s play, his receivers often had trouble winning contested balls (looking at you, Sammy Watkins). Running back Todd Gurley managed 101 rushing yards on 14 carries (7.2 yards per rush) and added four catches for 10 yards. Rams fans may point to Gurley’s carry total and scream, but Los Angeles was increasingly forced to rely on Goff in the second half as Falcons head coach Dan Quinn proved he does, in fact, know how to run out the clock.
One way Quinn and the Falcons were able to monopolize the clock was by taking advantage of the Rams’ two first-quarter fumbles. The Rams muffed a punt return midway through the first quarter which gave Atlanta excellent field position that they turned into a field goal. The game’s complexion changed with a minute and a half left in the first quarter, when the Falcons hit a field goal to go up 6-0, and then Rams returner Pharoh Cooper lost a fumble on the ensuing kick return, giving the Falcons the ball on the L.A. 32-yard line. Eight plays later, the Falcons took a 13-point lead, 10 of which the Rams handed them (that sound you heard was Rams fans facepalming). Goff and Co. managed to cut that to 13-10 at halftime, and the Rams were poised to stage a second-half comeback against the Falcons, who, well, don’t always protect leads.
The Falcons, however, flipped the Super Bowl narrative on its head and squeezed the life out of Los Angeles. Atlanta had the ball for 13 minutes and seven seconds of the third quarter, which they used to run a combined 26 plays. The team only managed a pair of field goals on those drives, but they exhausted L.A.’s defense and fast-forwarded to the fourth quarter in the process. The Falcons led the league in average drive time (2:54) this season, and on Saturday they showed how the ability to suffocate an opposing team can become dangerous as the game progresses.
The more time the vaunted Rams defense spent on the field, the more they struggled to get Atlanta off it. By Los Angeles’s third possession of the second half, the team was forced to go for it on fourth down twice, ultimately falling at the Atlanta 5-yard line, which effectively ended the game with just over two minutes left. The Rams were perhaps the most fun team of the year in part for their ability to create havoc, spark turnovers, and dunk on opponents with explosive plays. On Saturday night, they lost to a dink-and-dunk-and-dink again Falcons team, forced no turnovers, and managed just a handful of highlights.
The Falcons will now head to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, and with Nick Foles under center for Philly, Atlanta could be heading back to the NFC Championship game.
Los Angeles, who have candidates for MVP and Defensive player of the Year on their roster in Gurley and Donald, respectively, head into the offseason with a supremely talented core set to return. The Rams season may be over, but they probably haven’t run out of magic. They just ran out of time.