Rams' resurgent season ends early with loss to Falcons

LOS ANGELES -- The wound was too fresh, the emotions too raw for the bigger picture.

The Los Angeles Rams' thrilling turnaround had just ended, and it was still a little too soon to summon pride for a season worthy of it.

"It's hard," Rams quarterback Jared Goff said. "We wanted to come out here, and we didn't want this to end tonight at all. We've got such a special group of dudes in there, and coaches and everybody. It's such a special group, and you don't want it to end this early by any means. So, it's tough right now."

On Saturday night, in their first playoff game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in nearly 40 years, the Rams ran into a battle-tested Atlanta Falcons team that suffocated Todd Gurley, dominated the time of possession and took advantage of a couple of early special-teams turnovers. In front of a season-best crowd of 74,300, the Rams suffered a 26-13 loss in the wild-card round, their uplifting season under first-year head coach Sean McVay evaporating in a matter of 60 minutes.

"They did a great job," Gurley said of the Falcons. "They came in and executed, and they've got great players. They aren't the reigning NFC champs for no reason."

Gurley, who might just win the MVP, caught only four of 10 targets and totaled 111 scrimmage yards, the speed of the Falcons' defense and the slickness of the Coliseum's turf taking away the underneath game that had been so effective for him.

But the Rams were especially hurt on special teams, a department they excelled at throughout the season.

The Falcons' second punt hit off the foot of Blake Countess, bounced off the arms of Pharoh Cooper and slipped out of the grasp of Kevin Peterson, instantly putting the Falcons in field-goal range. They got there again on a kickoff, when Cooper -- headed to the Pro Bowl as a return man -- fumbled at the 32-yard line late in the first quarter.

"It's humbling," Cooper said. "You always have to protect the ball. That's the main thing. Coach said it in the first meeting: 'It's all about the ball.' I didn't do a good job of protecting the ball tonight."

Behind Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the dynamic one-two punch of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons held the ball for nearly 38 minutes, using a 3-yard touchdown run by Freeman and four Matt Bryant field goals -- two of them from beyond 50 yards -- to build a 19-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Gurley finally came alive then, picking up 47 yards on back-to-back runs. But the Rams settled for a field goal, and the Falcons answered again against a Rams defense that had lost defensive end Michael Brockers. On second-and-13 from the Falcons' 38, Mohamed Sanu caught a screen pass and picked up 53 yards. On second-and-goal from the 8, Jones lined up in the slot, streaked to the other side of the field pre-snap, ran a fade to the pylon and caught a perfectly executed over-the-top throw from Ryan, increasing the Falcons' lead to 13 with less than six minutes left.

"They made one more play than we did," said Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a consistent force on the interior. "We were trying to dig out of a hole, but we kept fighting. That's the important thing. We just kept fighting. But we fell short."

It looked as if Goff had marched the Rams up the field for a necessary touchdown immediately after the Falcons' score, finding tight end Tyler Higbee near the back of the end zone. But replay overturned the call, ruling the pass incomplete. And Goff's desperation fourth-down pass to Sammy Watkins fell harmlessly to the turf, a turnover on downs with a shade over two minutes remaining.

A lot of talk heading into this game centered on the Rams' playoff inexperience, but McVay strongly denied that, saying, "I don't think this game was too big for our players."

"I think they played better than we did," Goff said, simply. "Playoff experience -- I don't really understand what that means. I think each game is the same. This one has a little bit more meaning to it, of course, but we did not play well."

The Rams did what many believed to be impossible this season, going from 4-12 with a putrid offense to 11-5 while leading the NFL in points. Goff emerged, Gurley marveled, Donald dominated and the Rams -- coming off 10 consecutive losing seasons -- finally made their mark in the nation's second-largest media market.

But the loss was still too fresh.

"It's fresh just because of the expectations," McVay said after the game. "I think guys can appreciate the progression and the improvement that we've made, and there's some positives to draw on it. You're not content with the outcome just because of the standards, the expectations we have as a group. But it doesn't take away how much we appreciate those players."