LOS ANGELES – After missing the playoffs in every season since 2004, the Los Angeles Rams emerged as the kings of the NFC West division and entered last year’s postseason not knowing what they didn’t know.
The Rams entered those playoffs with little in the way of big-game experience, a young quarterback who’d never performed on the playoff stage and the youngest head coach in the league in his first season on the job trying to guide them through it all.
Like anything, the only way to gain the needed heat on your feet is to jump into the postseason fire. The Rams did that, lost to the Atlanta Falcons and emerged this season on the other side with not only a better roster and a better record (13-3) but a team better equipped to make noise in the postseason.
“I think we’re better positioned just based on getting the chance to get some rest now and maybe get ahead with the preparation,” coach Sean McVay said. “(I’m) not sure who it’s going to be that we play but obviously it’s going to give us a chance to get healthy No. 1 and you always use those experiences, whether it’s regular seasons, playoff games, to be able to try to get better and I think with some of our young players, specifically at the key spots, a lot of the games that we played not only this year but last year and even going back to the playoff atmosphere against Atlanta will serve us well and say ‘We’ve been in this type of setting.’”
Where last year’s Rams were a classic worst-to-first story, this year’s edition heads toward January a Bona fide Super Bowl contender with the expectations to match.
And while Sunday’s 48-32 win against the San Francisco 49ers doesn’t offer much insight into how the Rams will perform when they reach the postseason, it did plenty to ensure the Rams are much better positioned to do some damage in the next month-plus.
With this victory against the Niners, the Rams secured a 13-3 record, the No. 2 seed in the NFC and, most important, a bye that pushes them through to the NFC Divisional round. As McVay put it after the game, the Rams viewed Sunday as their version of the NFC wild card because it allowed them to jump straight to the divisional round.
It could mean even more than that. First and foremost, it offers an opportunity to get running back Todd Gurley II (knee) and safety Lamarcus Joyner (ankle) back to full strength and heal up any other remaining bumps and bruises.
Having Gurley, in particular, will be critical for an offense that has shown some warts over the past month. He’s missed the past two games because of that left knee soreness, though the Rams get the added bonus of C.J. Anderson, who has rushed for 299 yards in two games in Gurley’s stead, for depth.
Fresh legs are an impossibility at this point in the season but a healthy Gurley, even if he’s a bit rusty remains the Rams’ most dynamic offensive weapon.
Gurley isn’t the only Ram who could benefit from a little time off. The Rams’ offensive line has had some hiccups in recent weeks, particularly against top pass rushing teams like the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, the exact type of teams that await in the postseason.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the leader of that group departed Sunday’s game with a knee injury and did not return. McVay said Whitworth “knocked knees” with another player and was optimistic that it wasn’t much more than that. The extra week off provides Whitworth time to heal and some of the other veteran linemen a chance to hit refresh as well.
It also offers the chance to do some self-scouting as they await results of wild card weekend.
“This week will provide a great opportunity for us to look at ourselves, kind of try to get ahead on the opponent that we anticipate playing in the divisional round,” McVay said.
Perhaps just as important as any of that, though, is that these Rams don’t figure to enter this postseason as wide eyed or just happy to be there as they did a year ago. In 2017’s Week 17 matchup against the Niners, the Rams rested their starters, choosing to steal some rest at the expense of momentum.
Whether it had anything to do with the loss to Atlanta in the wild card round is in the eye of the beholder but it’s something multiple Rams acknowledged learning from. That was a disappointing end to an impressive season but it provided all of their key young players a taste of the postseason crucible.
The biggest lesson learned? That every mistake, such as the Rams’ two turnovers, five penalties and three missed red zone touchdown opportunities is magnified when it matters most. During the regular season, the Rams could lean on their prolific offense to overcome those errors. That’s a far more difficult proposition in the postseason.
“For us, it’s more of just like, ‘What can we do to make sure those mistakes don’t happen and limit those as much as humanly possible?’” guard Rodger Saffold said. “You can’t have the penalties. Penalties kill you. Can’t have the turnovers. Turnovers really kill you and I think that we understand that now. I think the guys understand that.
“I think when it comes down to the bigger parts of the game, it comes down to making a play to either win the game or to put a game away, we’ve been able to show that we can do that time and time again. That was something that we were either blowing people out or it came down to the wire and we would end up on the wrong side. I think that’s the different part this year.”
Talib, in particular, has a Super Bowl ring. The Rams believe now having multiple players who have been through it should help prevent another disappointment on the game’s biggest stage.
“We always say a loss is not a loss, it’s a lesson,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “So, we definitely learned a lot and we put ourselves in a great position now to have a bye week and move on. I think we’re in a good position.”
On Sunday, the Rams got a 13th and final regular season win and, in the process, put themselves in better position to turn postseason lessons learned into playoff victories earned.