THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Jared Goff got a lot of comparisons to Matt Ryan coming out of Cal, and Matt LaFleur has worked closely with both of them. LaFleur, who is in his first year as the Los Angeles Rams' offensive coordinator, spent the previous two seasons as the Atlanta Falcons' quarterbacks coach and eventually guided Ryan to an MVP award.
Goff and Ryan, who will face off in Saturday's wild-card playoff game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, are both "really talented throwers," LaFleur said.
They're also in completely different stages of their careers.
Ryan was 30 years old and entering his eighth NFL season in 2015 when LaFleur joined the Falcons under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. LaFleur came to the Rams when Goff was 22 and entering only his second year. Ryan "nailed his process" as a veteran quarterback, LaFleur said, and Goff is getting there.
"It's fun to see a guy like Jared, who's a young guy, who is working through that process and growing," LaFleur said. "You can see a lot of growth with Jared as he's gone about throughout the season."
Goff endured a miserable seven-start rookie season, with an 18.3 Total QBR that was dead last among those who attempted at least 200 passes. Now he's a first alternate for the Pro Bowl, looking very much like the franchise quarterback the Rams envisioned when they traded up to take him No. 1 overall in 2016.
From last season to this season, Goff has made significant improvements in completion percentage (54.6 to 62.1), yards per attempt (5.3 to 8.0), touchdown-to-interception ratio (0.71 to 4.00) and passer rating (63.6 to 100.5).
That brings up another comparison to Ryan.
"The other thing that I'll say about those guys that I think is unique to the elite quarterbacks is both of them have battled through adversity," LaFleur said. "You look at Matt in 2015, some might say he struggled compared to the standards that I know he had for himself. And then he rebounds and he's the league MVP. Same goes for Jared. I know his rookie year didn't go well for him. And then you look at him this year, and I think he's handled himself and has shown improvement on a weekly basis. The mindset, the mentality that those guys have, is very similar."
Goff is staying cool
Goff is doing his best not to make a big deal of his first playoff start.
"It’s the exact same," he said. "We’re going to take the exact same approach we took the first 16 games and hopefully go in there and play well.”
Goff will be 23 years and 84 days old when he takes the field on Saturday (kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC). Quarterbacks no older than that are 6-12 in the playoffs during the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last quarterback that young to win a playoff game: Mark Sanchez in 2009.
Goff will be the 17th starting quarterback picked No. 1 overall to start in the postseason in the common draft era, which dates back to 1967. Since 1995, those quarterbacks are 2-7 in their playoff debut, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
None of that, of course, is relevant to Goff, who anticipates some nerves heading into his next game.
"Oh, I’ll be nervous," Goff said. "Of course, yeah, you always get nervous. But I think it’s more excitement and more anxiety and you want to get out there than true nervousness. You may have that little pit in your stomach at the beginning of the game, but it’s no different than any other game for me, honestly. I feel the same way every week, and I'm going to approach this one the same way.”
Tru and Julio down by the schoolyard
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, on his second consecutive franchise tag with the Rams, is expected to spend his Saturday following superstar Falcons receiver Julio Jones around. There are a lot more pleasant ways to spend your weekend, but Johnson is up for the challenge.
"He's a freak of nature," Johnson said of Jones. "I'm a freak of nature, too."
Johnson, listed at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds, is the only member of the Rams' secondary with real size. And he has spent a lot of his 2017 season shadowing the opponents' best receivers, including the San Francisco 49ers’ Pierre Garcon, the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Marqise Lee, the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins, the New Orleans Saints’ Michael Thomas and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Alshon Jeffery.
Those seven combined to haul in 30 of 52 targets for 472 yards and two touchdowns when Johnson was responsible for covering them, according to numbers compiled by ESPN analyst Mike Clay. They hauled in 57.7 percent of their targets. The NFL average this season was 64.5 percent.
"He does a good job," Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said of Johnson's ability to match up against the opponents' best receivers. "He's versatile to play both sides, which really helps you. ... He can disguise what he's in, so he's not necessarily playing the guy man-to-man all the time."
Stickin' with Ficken
The Rams enter the playoffs with uncertainty surrounding their kicker, which certainly isn't ideal. Sam Ficken, the emergency replacement for Greg Zuerlein, missed an extra-point attempt and a 36-yard attempt to begin his first NFL regular-season game on Dec. 24. He made his next six kicks, but four of them were extra points and the two field goals came from no farther than 23 yards away.
Ficken has been able to show his range only in practice. But Rams coach Sean McVay likes the way Ficken responded from those two misses and said he "seems like a mentally tough guy that's kind of unphased."
"We have a lot of confidence in Sam going into a big game," McVay added.
"Every time you go out there, you’re expected to make the kicks," Ficken said. "Obviously I didn’t start the way I wanted, but I don’t think that plays into how I feel about my ability. They saw me in the tryout, they’ve seen me in practice. I think it was just a matter of getting in a rhythm and finding a smooth flow."
Not for the Birds
McVay grew up about a half-hour away from the Georgia Dome and went to a lot of Falcons games as a kid. His father Tim was a general manager at WSB-TV in Atlanta, and sometimes McVay would watch from a luxury suite. But he always remained loyal to the 49ers, the franchise his grandfather once helped build into a powerhouse.
“There was individual players that I rooted for," McVay said of the Falcons. "But at the time that my grandfather was still involved with the 49ers, they were actually in the same division, so I couldn’t be rooting for the Falcons then.”
The last time the Rams went to the playoffs, they lost to the Falcons 47-17 in the divisional round in 2004. The last time they played the Falcons, in Week 14 of the 2016 season, they were blown out at home, trailing 42-0 heading into the fourth quarter and ultimately suffering their fourth consecutive loss.
Jeff Fisher was fired as head coach the following day. Goff, who had a 7.7 Total QBR in that game, was asked if he would watch any film from the last Falcons matchup in preparation for the next one. His entire response: "No."