Under coach Sean McVay, the Rams locker room during late stages of previous seasons was filled with players and team personnel laughing and shouting after the team clinched a playoff spot or division title.
It was a markedly different situation and vibe on Sunday. The room emptied quickly and was otherwise quiet and filled with resignation.
The Dallas Cowboys routed the Rams 44-21 before 90,436 at AT&T Stadium, dealing the team’s playoff chances a possible lethal blow.
“We played horrible,” defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. “When you play horrible, you get beat on, you get beat pretty bad. And we got embarrassed.”
It was a shocking blow to a team that had professed to be peaking at the right time.
The Rams had shaken off a rout by the Baltimore Ravens, won two games in a row, and on Sunday were facing a woefully inconsistent Cowboys team that had a sub-.500 record.
But Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott played like a superstar on a salary drive, and running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard ran all over what had been a recently stout defense, dropping the Rams’ record to 8-6.
“They kicked our butt,” safety Taylor Rapp said. “They dominated us.”
The loss, combined with the Minnesota Vikings’ 39-10 victory over the Chargers on Sunday, put the Rams two games behind the Vikings (10-4) in the race for the final NFC wild-card spot.
“Did we drop down to like a 5% chance?” running back Todd Gurley said.
A year after playing in the Super Bowl, the Rams seemingly have only one way to make a third consecutive playoff appearance.
They must defeat the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, and the Arizona Cardinals in the season finale at the Coliseum — and the Vikings would have to lose at home against the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.
If that scenario does not unfold, the Rams will be watching the playoffs from their couches for the first time since McVay took over in 2017.
“We haven’t been consistent enough as a football team, really throughout this season,” McVay said.
The Rams teetered on the verge of elimination from playoff contention several times after a Nov. 10 road defeat by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But they bounced back to defeat the Bears, and then rebounded again after getting run over by the Ravens.
But none of the positives from those victories was evident Sunday.
“Kind of got whupped,” Rams receiver Robert Woods said.
The Cowboys, losers of three games in a row, came out and played like the team owner Jerry Jones pined for. Prescott, Elliott and star receiver Amari Cooper made plays. Veteran tight end Jason Witten made a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch.
And a defense led by linebacker Sean Lee shut down Rams running back Todd Gurley and stifled quarterback Jared Goff.
“Anytime you disrupt a quarterback and not allow him to get in a rhythm, it’s a wonderful feeling,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said.
Goff completed 33 of 51 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns, but much of his yardage and one of his touchdowns came when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Goff was examined for a right hand injury early in the game but said afterward that he was fine.
“It wasn’t good from start to finish,” he said of the Rams’ performance.
McVay had made Gurley the focal point of a seemingly rejuvenated Rams offense in three of the last four games. Gurley, however, was not much of a factor against the Cowboys.
He caught a touchdown pass in the second quarter, but he rushed for only 20 yards and a late touchdown in 11 carries.
“I’m not sure exactly what they did,” Gurley said of the Cowboys strategy to stop him, “but they did a damn good job.”
A Rams defense that gave up only a touchdown against the Cardinals and two field goals against the Seattle Seahawks suddenly could not tackle against the Cowboys. After Gurley tied the score with his touchdown catch, the Rams gave up 30 consecutive points.
Prescott’s 59-yard touchdown pass to former Rams receiver Tavon Austin started the rout.
In 2016, the Rams chose Goff with the first pick in the draft and the Philadelphia Eagles selected Carson Wentz second. Prescott was not selected until the fourth round.
“Those guys are great players, but obviously when you play them, there’s a little bit of a chip on your shoulder,” said Prescott, who completed 15 of 23 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. “You want to beat their teams. It’s as simple as that.”
Elliott rushed for 117 yards in 24 carries, and rookie Pollard rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown in 12 carries as the Cowboys improved to 7-7.
The Cowboys lead the NFC East, and they can clinch a playoff berth by defeating the Eagles next Sunday.
The Rams playoff fate is not as optimistic. After controlling their situation in 2017 and 2018, they must win out and rely on the Packers and Bears to defeat the Vikings.
“It’s never ideal,” Goff said of needing help from other teams, “but it’s our situation right now.”