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.
RELATED: The best photos from the NFL season
The best photos from the NFL season
The best photos from the NFL season
NASHVILLE, TN- SEPTEMBER 10: Safety Karl Joseph #42 of the Oakland Raiders deflects a pass intended for wide receiver Eric Decker #87 of the Tennessee Titans in the first half at Nissan Stadium on September 10, 2017 In Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) )
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 07: Kareem Hunt #27 of the Kansas City Chiefs stiff arms Duron Harmon #30 of the New England Patriots as he runs for a 4-yard rushing touchdown during the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 7, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 10: DeShone Kizer #7 of the Cleveland Browns rushes for a touchdown in the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers is tackled by Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Jerick McKinnon #21 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball in the first quarter of the game against the New Orleans Saints on September 11, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 17: Tight end David Njoku #85 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates his touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on September 17, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr /Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: J.J. Nelson #14 of the Arizona Cardinals makes a juggling catch in the second quarter of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 17, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 11: Running back Melvin Gordon #28 of the Los Angeles Chargers dives over strong safety Justin Simmons #31 of the Denver Broncos in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 11, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Corey Grant of the Jacksonville Jaguars is tackled Tony Jefferson of the Baltimore Ravens during the NFL International Series match between Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on September 24, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 08: Leonard Fournette #27 of the Jacksonville Jaguars dives into the end zone for a 2 yard touchdown in the second quarter during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 08: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers looks for an open receiver in the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 08: Will Fuller #15 of the Houston Texans makes a reception for a touchdown as he slips behind Terrance Mitchell of the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter at NRG Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 15: Tevin Coleman #26 of the Atlanta Falcons stretches for a touchdown against Kiko Alonso #47 and Nate Allen #29 of the Miami Dolphins at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 15, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 15: Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins #88 of the New York Jets is seen fumbling the ball after what was originally called a touchdown against strong safety Duron Harmon #30 and cornerback Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter of their game at MetLife Stadium on October 15, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Replay Official reviewed the runner broke the plane ruling, and the play was reversed and called a fumble. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 15: Marshon Lattimore #23 of the New Orleans Saints breaks up a pass thrown to Golden Tate #15 of the Detroit Lions at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 15, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints defeated the Lions 52-38. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 15: The New Orleans Saints defense celebrates during the second half of a game against the Detroit Lions at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 15, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 15: Wide receiver Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is upended by linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis #57 of the Kansas City Chiefs after a catch over the middle during the second half of the game at Arrowhead Stadium on October 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. ( Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images )
CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 22: Adrian Phillips #31 of the Los Angeles Chargers attempts an interception on a pass to A.J. Derby #83 of the Denver Broncos during the third quarter at StubHub Center on October 22, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 26: A cat runs on the field during the fourth quarter of the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium on October 26, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 22: Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons catches a touchdown pass as he is defended by Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter of a game at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 29: Ted Ginn #19 of the New Orleans Saints catches a pass as he is defended by Eddie Jackson #39 of the Chicago Bears during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 29, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 06: Brett Hundley #7 of the Green Bay Packers avoids a tackle attempt by Ezekiel Ansah #94 of the Detroit Lions in the third quarter at Lambeau Field on November 6, 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs passes the ball under pressure from Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys and Brian Price #92 of the Dallas Cowboys in the second quarter of a football game at AT&T Stadium on November 5, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 12: Darius Slay #23 of the Detroit Lions makes a tackle against Rashard Higgins #81 of the Cleveland Browns during the first half at Ford Field on November 12, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 19: Preston Smith #94 of the Washington Redskins hits Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints and is called for a roughing the passer penalty at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 19, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 26: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers runs the ball to score a touchdown against outside linebacker Bruce Carter #54 of the New York Jets during the second quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on November 26, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 26: Trey Flowers #98 and Kyle Van Noy #53 of the New England Patriots recover a fumble during the third quarter of a game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on November 26, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26: Andrew Whitworth #77 of the Los Angeles Rams runs onto the field prior to the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 26, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Byron Marshall #34 of the Washington Redskins leaps over Orlando Scandrick #32 of the Dallas Cowboys on a run in the first quarter of a football game at AT&T Stadium on November 30, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 03: Logan Ryan #26 of the Tennessee Titans swats away a pass intended for DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Houston Texans during the first half at Nissan Stadium on December 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 3: Dion Lewis #33 of the New England Patriots stiff arms Jordan Poyer #21 of the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter on December 3, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 07: Tommylee Lewis #11 of the New Orleans Saints dives for a touchdown as he is tackled by De'Vondre Campbell #59 of the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 7, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 10: Colton Schmidt #6 of the Buffalo Bills walks the field before a game against the Indianapolis Colts on December 10, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 10: Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Carolina Panthers runs for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 10: Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Carolina Panthers leaps into the end zone to score the game-winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 31-24. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 11: Danny Amendola #80 of the New England Patriots fails to complete a touchdown against the defense of T.J. McDonald #22 of the Miami Dolphins in the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 11, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 16: Chicago Bears wide receiver Markus Wheaton #12 juggles the ball for an incomplete pass against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Ford Field on December 16, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 17: Damiere Byrd #18 of the Carolina Panthers catches a touchdown pass against Josh Hawkins #28 of the Green Bay Packers in the third quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 17, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots breaks up a pass intended for LeSean McCoy #25 of the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter of a game at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 24: Tight end Evan Engram #88 of the New York Giants is unable to catch the pass against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 31: Darrius Heyward-Bey #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs up field for a 29 yard touchdown run in the first quarter during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on December 31, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 31: Wide receiver Jaron Brown #13 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates his 25 yard touchdown catch against cornerback Byron Maxwell #41 of the Seattle Seahawks during the first quarter at CenturyLink Field on December 31, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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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.”