Next season, the majesty of SoFi Stadium.
This season, the malaise of the sofa.
For the first time under coach Sean McVay, the Rams are postseason spectators, their flickering playoff hopes extinguished on a cool night at Levi’s Stadium.
They now have to deal with a tackling problem. As they prepare to begin their new chapter in their glistening Inglewood palace, it’s how can they fully wrap their arms around a season that started with such promise — fresh off a Super Bowl appearance — then cruelly slipped their grasp?
“Sometimes we played like the No. 1 team in the conference, and sometimes we played like a team that had no business being out there,” linebacker Clay Matthews said, piercing the silence of a locker room in the wake of a 34-31 defeat to San Francisco. “Unfortunately, we’re in the position we are today because of that.”
Most vexing for the Rams was how tantalizingly good they looked in flashes. They swarmed 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, sacking him six times in the second half. Jared Goff squeezed passes through moving mail slots. Todd Gurley showed glimpses of his former self.
“I think we were in plenty of games and had plenty of chances to win games,” Goff said. “The ball goes here or there a couple of times and we’re having a completely different conversation right now.”
This wasn’t a cover-your-face loss like the ones to Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh. It wasn’t a face-plant, like the collapse to Baltimore or to San Francisco the first time. Saturday night, the Rams played the way they wanted to play all season. They looked like a very good team, if not an elite one. But then they staggered and fell.
In the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds, with the score tied at 31, the 49ers mounted a 60-yard drive to win it with a 33-yard Robbie Gould field goal as time expired.
It was San Francisco’s fourth consecutive game decided by the final play — a loss to Baltimore, victory over New Orleans, loss to Atlanta, and triumph over the Rams.
This wasn’t simply a three-point loss for the Rams. It was a Three Mile Island-style meltdown on that final drive. Garoppolo converted a pair of third-and-16 situations on the possession — an 18-yard completion to Kendrick Bourne, and a 46-yard throw down the middle to Emmanuel Sanders.
According to Josh Dubow of the Associated Press, the 49ers had failed on 50 consecutive third-and-16-plus situations before that.
On the completion to Sanders, which set up the winning field goal, cornerback Jalen Ramsey was supposed to have help over the top from rookie safety Taylor Rapp. But Rapp was too deep to affect the play.
“It was a tough concept,” Rapp said, deep disappointment in his voice. “I was supposed to get over the top a little bit. Just really tough concept for the call we were in. No miscommunication. I could have probably done a better job getting over the top.”
The Rams now face the challenge of getting over this. They finish at home against Arizona knowing they didn’t finish among the 12 teams moving forward.
“It’s fresh,” McVay said of the disappointment. “But I know this: We’re going to look at this film and we’re going to move on. We’re going to finish this season off the right way. To be able to finish with a winning record, that’s the next thing. You always have the playoffs, but that’s out the window, well, hey, let’s have some pride.”
The 49ers and Seahawks are playing for more. They will play each other in Seattle for the NFC West crown and potentially the No. 1 seed.
“We’re a young bunch,” said Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers, among the team’s elder statesmen. “We’ve got a lot of young guys on this team that are going to have to go through some of these aches and pains. We don’t want it, it’s unfortunate that we have to go through it, but you’ve got to learn from these losses.
“We were so up and down this year. We have to be more consistent. We don’t have no quitters on this team. Everybody is trying to execute the plays. … You always look back and regret. Immediately after the games you feel like you should win, you feel like, ‘Dang, that’s going to bite us.’
“Our losses are never just losses. They’re lessons.”
They were hoping to learn on the fly. Instead, it’s class dismissed.