The Rams, making their first playoff appearance since 2004, found out the hard way on Saturday at the Coliseum.
The Atlanta Falcons, a year removed from their Super Bowl meltdown, muted the Rams’ high-scoring offense and took advantage of special teams miscues en route to a 26-13 victory in an NFC wild-card playoff game before a crowd of 74,300.
Matt Ryan passed for a touchdown, Devonta Freeman ran for one and Matt Bryant kicked four field goals as the sixth-seeded Falcons (11-6) advanced to play the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles.
The third-seeded Rams finished 11-6 in their turnaround season under first-year coach Sean McVay. They could not overcome an early 13-0 deficit and lost in their first playoff game at the Coliseum since 1979.
“We’re not content with the way this season ended,” McVay said, “but it doesn’t take away from the fact that our players and our group of coaches accomplished a lot of things where we feel like we’re building a foundation where that trajectory is pointing upward.”
McVay said the game wasn’t too big for his team — which included only six players with playoff experience — but he and his players noted the Falcons’ recent playoff history.
“They’re not the reigning NFC champs for no reason,” Todd Gurley said.
On a night when Ryan and receiver Julio Jones showed their playoff experience, Rams quarterback Jared Goff and Gurley struggled to find their rhythm for most of the game.
Gurley rushed for 101 yards in only 14 carries and Robert Woods caught nine passes for 142 yards, but the Rams scored only one touchdown and got two field goals from Sam Ficken.
“It took a little bit longer than usual for us to settle in,” said Goff, who completed 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown to Cooper Kupp. “Ultimately, myself and all of us didn’t do enough to win.”
The Rams rarely got inside the 20-yard line, and struggled when they did.
“We didn’t get it done,” offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said. “We kind of got away from our identity a little bit in the run game.
“[The Falcons] ended up doing a great job on their offense of using up the clock to the point where we couldn’t use our run game anymore, and it cost us.”
The Rams also gave up points after they muffed a punt and Pharoh Cooper fumbled on a kickoff return. The Falcons turned the mistakes into a field goal and a touchdown.
“They started the game off and made some big plays for turnovers and gave themselves a lot of momentum, so we were in a tough spot from the jump,” linebacker Robert Quinn said. “The guys kept fighting but just didn’t make enough plays in enough time.”
Meantime, Ryan and the Falcons played virtually error free.
“We always preach turnovers and we didn’t get any; we lost the turnover battle,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. “You have to try and get turnovers with them. They went to the Super Bowl last year, they had a great team that won the NFC. It just came down to a couple plays.”
Ryan, who completed 21 of 30 passes for 218 yards, showed his mettle on the decisive series.
The Rams had pulled to within 19-13 early in the fourth quarter when Ryan went to work.
He completed a short pass to Mohamed Sanu, and then watched him sprint 52 yards to the Rams’ 10. Two plays later, with Rams linebacker Connor Barwin bearing down on him, Ryan slipped but still lofted an eight-yard touchdown pass to Jones for a 26-13 lead with 5:48 left.
“Connor Barwin was up the field so I had to stop — didn’t stop probably as gracefully as I liked,” Ryan said. “Kept my feet, which was good, tried to give Julio an opportunity toward the front pylon.”
McVay held out starters in the season finale against the San Francisco 49ers so they could rest and be ready for the playoff game.
The defense came out strong, but the offense lacked the first-quarter spark it had demonstrated throughout most of the season.
The league’s highest-scoring unit looked nothing like the part for most of the first half, and special-team units committed two miscues that enabled the Falcons to take a 13-0 lead.
But the Rams rallied late in the second quarter on Goff’s touchdown pass to Kupp and a field goal that pulled the Rams to within 13-10 at halftime.
“Watching the way we fought back to get 10 straight at the end of the half … there are examples of doing it the right way,” McVay said of his team’s resiliency.
The Falcons took more than eight minutes and drove to the Rams’ seven-yard line on the opening possession of the second half, but the Rams’ defense stepped up and ended the threat, forcing the Falcons to settle for Bryant’s third field goal.
The Rams appeared to get a lift when Goff connected with receiver Woods for a 25-yard gain, but they could not get another first down on the drive.
Ryan took advantage, completing two passes to Jones as the Falcons moved down the field. The Rams defense once again stopped the Falcons, but Bryant’s 54-yard field goal increased the lead to 19-10.
Gurley got going in the fourth quarter, breaking off runs of 14 and 33 yards that set up Ficken’s 32-yard field goal that pulled the Rams to within 19-13.
But Ryan connected with Jones for the decisive touchdown and the Rams could not come back.
Goff led a drive to the Falcons’ five-yard line, but his fourth-down pass to Sammy Watkins in the end zone was broken up, ending the hope for a comeback.
Goff said the Rams would learn from the experience but thought they were good enough to go on in the playoffs.