As the final minutes ticked down at the Coliseum, a hoodie-wearing Todd Gurley approached Aaron Donald on the bench and helped the Rams defensive lineman pull off his shoulder pads.
The reigning NFL offensive and defensive players of the year then shared a hug and a laugh before they were joined by joyous middle linebacker Cory Littleton.
The three players celebrated as if they had won a playoff game.
In a sense, they had.
The Rams’ 48-32 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday earned them the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, and the bye through the wild-card round that goes with it.
“We looked at this like a playoff game,” coach Sean McVay said. “It’s great to be able to get that bye and get ourselves as healthy as possible.”
The Rams, seeded behind the New Orleans Saints, will play a divisional-round game at the Coliseum on Jan. 12. Their opponent will be the highest-seeded team remaining after wild-card games.
The fourth-seeded Dallas Cowboys play host to the fifth-seeded Seattle Seahawks, and the third-seeded Chicago Bears play host to the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in wild-card games next weekend.
“We’re going to sit back and just watch these games upcoming and we’re going to prepare ourselves to be ready to go,” cornerback Marcus Peters said.
With Gurley sidelined for the second game in a row because of knee soreness, McVay left nothing to chance. A crowd of 72,161 watched as Jared Goff passed for four touchdowns, C.J. Anderson rushed for more than 100 yards for the second game in a row and the defense forced four first-half turnovers.
The Rams finished the regular season with a 13-3 record, including 6-0 against NFC West opponents.
And they will enter the postseason with momentum after rebounding from consecutive losses against the Bears and Eagles with victories over the Arizona Cardinals and the 49ers.
“We got that bye week so we’re already into the second round,” linebacker Mark Barron said. “It’s a great opportunity and we’ve got to make sure we take advantage of it.
“We’re most definitely set up to go do what we want to do and that’s win the Super Bowl.”
This will be the Rams’ second straight playoff appearance under McVay, the offense-minded wunderkind who was hired before the 2017 season at age 30.
In last season’s finale against the 49ers, McVay rested nearly every starter. The Rams subsequently came out flat, and nervous, in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Coliseum in the wild-card round.
That was the first playoff game not only for young players such as Goff, but for veterans such as Donald and offensive lineman Rodger Saffold.
That experience should serve the Rams well.
“Just understanding the opportunity is definitely a part of it,” said Goff, who completed 15 of 26 passes for 199 yards against the 49ers. “Just having more big-game experience, being on prime time a handful of times this year and then having that playoff game last year and having games that are meaningful late in the season.
“I think that all carries over and into the playoffs and into that mentality that you have to have.”
Said Saffold: “This team has matured greatly from last year, and I think the experience that we learned from before is going to pay off with this year’s playoffs.”
Donald recorded one sack against the 49ers, falling two shy of tying the NFL record of 221/2 held by Michael Strahan.
But Donald said he was focused only on making plays that would help win the game to earn the bye. After playing in a playoff game for the first time last season, he is eager for another opportunity.
“Having that experience is going to help us,” he said. “We know what to expect and everybody’s hungry and everybody’s ready.”
Sunday’s victory was not all good news for the Rams: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth left in the second quarter because of a knee injury and safety Blake Countess left to be evaluated for a concussion.
Those injuries, coupled with Gurley’s situation and the sprained ankle that safety Lamarcus Joyner is nursing, will be cause for concern as the Rams rest and heal in preparation for the playoffs.
But the Rams are encouraged by the way Goff rebounded from a three-game minislump, and by a defense that has improved since cornerback Aqib Talib returned to the lineup Dec. 2 at Detroit.
Against the 49ers, Talib returned a fumble 47 yards to set up the Rams’ first touchdown, Countess intercepted a pass, and Littleton intercepted two passes, returning the second for a touchdown as the Rams built a 31-10 halftime lead.
Anderson followed his 167-yard rushing performance against the Cardinals with 132 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers. Receivers Brandin Cooks and Josh Reynolds each caught two touchdown passes.
Talib, Anderson and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips were part of Denver Broncos teams that made Super Bowl runs. Defensive back and special-teams standout Sam Shields did it with the Green Bay Packers.
By securing the bye, Shields said, the Rams are right where they need to be.