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The Rams Went All In to Beat the Patriots—and It Still Wasn’t Enough

Sean McVay’s team exemplified the tenets of modern team building in their run to Super Bowl LIII. They just learned the lesson that’s defined this decade in the NFL.

A photo illustration of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in Sean McVay’s eyes Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jared Goff sat slumped over in a silent Rams locker room, his head covered by a beige towel. Super Bowl LIII had ended more than an hour before, but the quarterback still hadn’t finished undressing. He was wearing a pair of royal blue leggings, and his shirtless upper body told the story of Los Angeles’s gut-wrenching 13-3 loss to the Patriots. Red scrapes and welts covered his left arm. New England’s defense hit Goff 12 times on Sunday night, and the beating had taken its toll.

With the towel covering most of his face, Goff seemed to search for answers. He chatted with backup quarterback Sean Mannion, reliving certain moments from the nightmare the Rams had just endured. A few minutes later, he and center John Sullivan discussed specifics of the team’s worst offensive performance in its two seasons under head coach Sean McVay. As the Rams head into the offseason, and likely a months-long lament over their missed opportunity, Goff may never find what he’s looking for. “The thing that is so tough about all of this is the finality to it,” a somber McVay said after the game. “Usually, you get a chance—if you go through some adversity, you can bounce back right away. This one is going to stick with you, and it just stings in your gut. … I’m still kind of numb right now.”

The Rams featured one of the NFL’s most high-powered offenses in 2018. Despite some struggles down the stretch, L.A. averaged 32.9 points per game in the regular season, second to only the Patrick Mahomes II–led Chiefs, and came to embody a leaguewide offensive explosion that produced more touchdowns than any previous season in history. But against New England, that high-flying unit was grounded. The Rams converted just three of their 13 third-down chances in Atlanta, and recorded only 260 total yards. Goff went 19-of-38 passing with an average of 6.0 yards per attempt, and tossed an ugly, game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter. Bill Belichick and Co. turned a game against one of the scariest offenses in football into a slog dominated by defense. “I got outcoached,” McVay said. “I didn’t do nearly good enough for our football team.”

Sunday night was supposed to mark the culmination of the Rams’ grand team-building plan. After L.A. jumped from the worst scoring offense in football under Jeff Fisher to the league’s top-scoring unit in McVay’s 2017 debut campaign, general manager Les Snead spent last offseason amassing the most talented roster that money—and draft capital—could buy. On February 24, the Rams traded a 2018 fourth-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder to Kansas City for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters and a 2018 sixth-rounder. Two weeks later, they shipped a 2018 fifth-round pick to Denver in exchange for star corner Aqib Talib. They added five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on a one-year, $14 million deal later that month. On April 3, L.A. sent its 2018 first-round pick and a sixth-round pick to New England for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a fourth-rounder. And it wasn’t even done. That aggressive approach carried into the season, as Snead added pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. in a deadline trade with Jacksonville.

Sensing their championship future was in reach, the Rams doubled down at every turn. This team was constructed with the sole purpose of winning this Super Bowl—and it still fell short against the coach and the team that have relentlessly ruled the league for 20 years.

In the modern NFL, going all in means constructing the best roster possible, but it also means building a roster to beat the Patriots. Since the current CBA was established in 2011, there have been eight Super Bowls. In all but one of those, the champion was either New England or a team that had beaten New England in the playoffs. (The lone exception is the 2013 Seahawks.) Last season, the Eagles defied the odds in their Super Bowl LII win: They put together such a perfect formula—both in terms of roster talent and superb schematics—that even Belichick and Tom Brady couldn’t overcome it. The Rams tried to replicate that formula Sunday, but went the way of the 2017 Jaguars, the 2018 Chiefs, and every Steelers team that has faced the dynastic Pats in the playoffs. McVay’s struggles only serve as a testament to what Doug Pederson and his team achieved 12 months ago.

Last year, the Eagles were able to consistently take advantage of the Patriots defense. Against a completely healthy and improved unit led by Belichick and coordinator Brian Flores, these Rams had no such luck. For the second straight game, New England squared off against an opponent that had spent much of the season redefining the limits of offensive football. For the second straight game, the Patriots dictated the action. New England blitzed on 50 percent of L.A.’s dropbacks, and its pass-rush plan included a variety of stunts and twists. After playing more man coverage than any other team in the NFL this season, the Pats played almost entirely zone. That limited the impact of the bunch and stack sets the Rams favor, which are most effective at exploiting man coverage over the middle of the field. Goff spent the entire night trying to keep his head above water. “It made it tough on us all night,” Goff said afterward. “You tip your cap to them. They are the team they are for a reason, and they did such a great job playing against us tonight and keeping us contained.”

Even when the Rams were able to string together a few productive plays, their drives were quickly sabotaged. All four of Goff’s sacks either came on third down or left the Rams needing at least 16 yards to reach the first-down marker. Early in the third quarter, with the score tied 3-3, Todd Gurley ripped off a 13-yard run—his longest of the day—to set L.A. up with a first-and-10 from the Patriots’ 44-yard line. But a questionable holding penalty on Sullivan negated the gain and brought the Rams back to their own 33. In a game in which yards were scarce, that 23-yard swing was devastating. “The holding call was a really tough one for us,” McVay said. “We had a good drive going, Todd makes a nice cutback run on a tight zone, and then it puts us at first-and-20. Those kinds of plays seem like they continuously presented themselves throughout the night and it never really enabled us to get in a rhythm. That was really tough.”

The two missed chances that are sure to haunt the Rams, though, both came on deep shots to Cooks. On a first-and-10 late in the third quarter, Cooks came open down the middle of the field on a busted coverage, but Goff initially didn’t see him. By the time the quarterback realized that Cooks was standing all alone in the end zone and released the ball, it was too late; cornerback Jason McCourty had a bead on the pass and broke it up right as it reached Cooks.

Late in the fourth quarter, Goff uncorked another deep throw for Cooks in the end zone, but this time safety Duron Harmon came over at the last second to jar the ball loose. On the very next play, Goff floated an interception to Stephon Gilmore and all but salted the game away. “That’s my fault,” Goff said. “I can’t put us in that situation. I knew they were bringing Cover Zero blitz there, and I tried to hit Brandin on a go ball, and Gilmore was too far off for me to make that decision. It was a bad decision by me.”

Cooks was a key cog in the Rams’ all-in plan for 2018, and after signing a five-year, $81 million contract extension last summer, he’s also a part of the team’s long-term future. The same can’t be said for players like Fowler and Suh, both of whom will be free agents this offseason. On his way back into the locker room after speaking to the media, Fowler exchanged a brief handshake with Snead and thanked him for the midseason trade that allowed Fowler to play in the Super Bowl. Along with Fowler and Suh, standout guard Rodger Saffold and safety Lamarcus Joyner will also hit free agency this spring. The Rams are projected to have about $35 million in salary cap space, but that number looks a lot smaller when considering how many starters they’ll have to re-sign or replace. The common belief about the Rams is that they’re set up to succeed for years to come. “When I congratulated [Julian Edelman], he said, ‘You guys are going to be really good for some time now,’” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “And I think it’s true.” But look at the Rams’ financial picture, and they’ve already made plenty of expensive commitments to the pillars of their franchise.

With his six-year, $135 million contract, Aaron Donald is the second-most-expensive defensive player in football. Gurley’s four-year, $57.5 million deal is the richest in history for a running back. The Rams have structured their roster around several big stars, and those stars all went quiet in the biggest game of the season. Donald finished Sunday with just a single QB pressure—his lowest output of the season—and Gurley had just 11 touches and two targets. After the game, McVay insisted that his All-Pro running back was healthy, but had no real answer as to why the Rams didn’t find ways to manufacture touches for him. “Certainly, that is going to be something I’m sure I’ll say, ‘I wish I could have got him more involved,’” McVay said.

The response to McVay and Goff’s worst outing together will likely be panic for some. There will be referendums on McVay’s ability as a play-caller, and whether organizations around the league should already have buyer’s remorse for hiring so many of his ex-assistants as their head coaches. Rumblings will start about what the Rams should do when it comes time to extend Goff’s contract next offseason, which looms as the franchise’s most important upcoming financial decision. But the McVay-Goff pairing is solid, and the Rams’ most pressing issue isn’t whether those two can return to the heights they did this season. It’s whether the rest of the Rams roster can.

L.A. will almost certainly lose Suh and another starter or two in free agency. Trades have left the team without a second- or third-round pick in the 2019 draft. With second contracts and market-setting extensions set to kick in, it’s reasonable to wonder whether this was the most talented team the Rams will field in this era of the franchise. Along with the players already slated to leave in free agency, there’s also no telling what the future holds for 71-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips—who called a masterful game against Brady and the Patriots—and 37-year-old Pro Bowl left tackle Whitworth. Asked Sunday whether this was his last game, the 13-year veteran was noncommittal on his future. “Ya know, I don’t know,” Whitworth said. “Some guys in the locker room were begging me to not say anything like that, but ya know what, I have no idea. I really don’t.”

Like so many others before them, the Rams turned over every rock to build a team just good enough to beat the Patriots. Like so many others before them, they fell short. The question now, and the one they’ll be mulling in the coming months, is whether they’ll ever be back.