LOS ANGELES — The resurgent Los Angeles Rams season that nobody saw coming is suddenly over, a little earlier than many would’ve expected.
On Saturday night, in their first playoff game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in nearly 40 years, the Rams ran into a battle-tested Atlanta Falcons team that suffocated Todd Gurley, dominated the time of possession and took advantage of a couple of early special-teams turnovers. In front of a season-best crowd of 74,300, the Rams suffered a 26-13 loss in the wild-card round, their uplifting season under first-year head coach Sean McVay evaporating in a matter of 60 minutes.
The Rams navigated through the 2017 season with one of the game’s best special-teams units, but that department plagued them. The Falcons’ second punt hit off the foot of Blake Countess, bounced off the arms of Pharoh Cooper and slipped out of the grasp of Kevin Peterson, instantly putting the Falcons in field-goal range. They got there again on a kickoff, when Cooper — headed to the Pro Bowl as a return man — fumbled at the 32-yard line late in the first quarter.
Gurley, who might just win the MVP, caught only four of 10 targets and totaled 111 scrimmage yards, the speed of the Falcons’ defense and the slickness of the Coliseum’s turf holding him in check aside from a small handful of long runs.
Behind Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the dynamic one-two punch of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons held the ball for nearly 38 minutes, using a 3-yard touchdown run by Freeman and four Matt Bryant field goals — two of them from beyond 50 yards — to build a 19-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Gurley finally came alive then, picking up 47 yards on back-to-back runs. But the Rams settled for a field goal, and the Falcons answered again against a Rams defense that lost defensive end Michael Brockers. On second-and-13 from the Falcons’ 38, Mohamed Sanu caught a screen pass and picked up 53 yards. On second-and-goal from the 8, Jones lined up in the slot, streaked to the other side of the field, ran a fade to the pylon and caught a perfectly executed over-the-top throw from Ryan, increasing the Falcons’ lead to 13.
It looked as if Jared Goff had marched the Rams up the field for a necessary touchdown on the subsequent drive, finding tight end Tyler Higbee near the back of the end zone. But replay overturned the call, ruling the pass incomplete. And Goff’s desperation fourth-down pass to Sammy Watkins fell harmlessly to the turf, a turnover on downs with a shade over two minutes remaining.
The Rams did what many believed to be impossible this season, going from 4-12 with a putrid offense to 11-5 while leading the NFL in points. Goff emerged, Gurley marveled, Aaron Donald dominated, and the Rams — coming off 10 consecutive losing seasons — finally made their mark in the nation’s second-largest media market.
But they will watch the rest of the playoffs like the rest of us.