They needed to save face.
Instead, the Rams did more Sunday. They unveiled a facelift.
With their best offensive player, Todd Gurley, watching in sweatpants, and a victory absolutely essential, the Rams didn’t panic and try to throw for miles, as they might have earlier in the season. They played quintessential late-season football, leaning on their running game and defense to grind out a 31-9 win.
Where the Rams of October might have clustered three receivers, the December version relentlessly pounded with two-tight-end sets. Football’s answer to Showtime gave way to L.A. Brawn, with the just-signed C.J. Anderson carrying the ball as Gurley rested his ailing knee.
The Rams rushed for 269 yards at a gaudy average of 6.6 yards per play. They showed the rest of the league, and everyone in their own locker room, that they’re versatile enough to reinvent themselves. Granted, it was against a bad opponent. But it was just the kind of get-right game the Rams needed after three pretty lousy weeks.
Those 269 yards were one yard off the Rams’ best rushing effort this season, in a 23-20 win at Denver in Week 6 when Gurley ran for 208 yards. This time, Gurley could rest as Anderson ran for 167 in 20 carries.
“One thing that hasn’t changed in the 13 years that I’ve been in the league is that the month of December is about physicality and defense,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “It’s really about the team that can try to break the other team’s will. It never changes. I don’t care what your record is.”
So now the Rams are one win from securing the NFC’s No. 2 seed, which would assure them a first-round bye. In the last five years, no team has made it to the Super Bowl without that bye, and nine of the last 10 participants in that marquee game were No. 1 seeds.
The Rams finish at home Sunday against San Francisco, which might seem like a stroke of luck. But the 49ers, though beaten to a pulp, have shown remarkable resilience. Coach Kyle Shanahan has basically been David Copperfield, somehow cobbling together consecutive victories over Denver and Seattle coming into Sunday’s down-to-the-wire loss to Chicago.
Even though the Rams throttled the 49ers 39-10 in Week 7, they can’t expect to coast at the Coliseum in their regular-season finale. They’ll have to work to beat San Francisco, which is good in light of how last season ended, with Los Angeles cruising into the playoffs and falling to Atlanta in the first round.
“It doesn’t last,” Rams guard Rodger Saffold said. “Everybody has their day. It just shows you that this is a professional sport. Even though you may have the most high-powered offense, you’ll have a day when you just can’t score. That’s what makes it interesting. Otherwise, we’d just say, ‘All right, there’s no way they’re going to win. You guys take home the W.’ ”
By finding a different way to win Sunday, the Rams made themselves more dangerous down the line. They ripped up the blueprint opponents might have used to beat them. They also made their play-action passing game that much more effective, because defenses have to come up and respect the run.
“When guys have to defend the run and commit to that, you get more regulated structures on the back end,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
And more regulated structures means more predictability. More predictability means more opportunity for an offense with a quarterback capable of throwing the ball through those imaginary windows.
The Rams ventured out of their comfort zone Sunday. As a result, they had a growth spurt, one that could help them achieve new heights.
The dip they took the last three weeks doesn’t worry them.
“It was a blessing in disguise to have this happen early,” Saffold said. “Yes, we did put ourselves in a situation to where it’s a little bit of an uphill battle, but I think that’s going to put us in the right direction to be able to peak at the right time.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer