By GREG BEACHAM – AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) – As the Rams shook hands with the San Francisco 49ers in the field on Sunday, celebratory graphics boomed from the massive Oculus video wall above them. Virtual confetti flew as SoFi Stadium announced Los Angeles as the “NFC West Division Champs”.
Moments after the Rams’ heartbreaking sixth consecutive loss to their arch-rivals, it sure didn’t seem like the time or place for a celebration.
The Rams’ defeat at 27:24 in overtime brought them into the playoffs with a demoralizing dejection, although Arizona’s equally terrifying home defeat to Seattle allowed Los Angeles to stumble into yet another division title.
“You have to get ready,” said Rams coach Sean McVay. “Our boys are ready to go, but you have to play four quarters – or in this case five quarters. … Fortunately, that’s not the end for us.”
Indeed, the fourth seeded Rams (12-5) have the opportunity to obliterate this particularly bitter ending to McVay’s fifth regular season.
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They host the first playoff game in SoFi history on Monday night against the Cardinals (11-6), whose disappointment in the late season with their 1-4 finish is exponentially worse.
But the Rams have lost once to Arizona at Inglewood this season, and they have many areas to improve if they hope to avoid getting out of the opening round.
Los Angeles was dominated on both lines of scrimmage by the 49ers who defeated the Rams 449-265. San Francisco held the Rams at a rapid pace at 64 yards, sacking Matthew Stafford five times as their offensive capitalized on Los Angeles’ poor tackle strength to make six long drives after a slow start.
Even the extension of overtime flattered this poor performance by the Rams, who realized they didn’t look like a Super Bowl contender with the division title at stake.
They remain confident that in most of their 12 wins they are as good as they looked, and not as bad as twice against San Francisco – or against number 1 seeds Green Bay and Tennessee, both of which the Rams puffed up have hunted regular season.
“Right now it’s testing us,” said Stafford. “We lost the football game we had a chance to win. We would have felt great to win this game and win the league the way we wanted to. But we are a resilient group and we will be ready to walk.” . “
The Rams have the most effective receiver in the sport after Cooper Kupp closed his historic season by becoming the fourth player in NFL history to lead the league on receptions (145), yards (1,947) and touchdown catches (16). Arizona kept Kupp at a season low of five catches in the Cardinals win at Inglewood, but he rebounded with a season high of 13 catches in the Rams rematch win at Glendale. LA’s passing game was effective against San Francisco even when the running game didn’t exist.
The Rams Defense ranked 17th in the NFL after being number 1 in the league last season. LA just doesn’t put off good offensives, although Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller all play well. Their supporting actors miss tackles (a season high 19 against the Niners according to Pro Football Focus), don’t adapt spontaneously and just don’t have the talent not to be exploited by clever coaches and quarterbacks. While the Rams can outperform Kyler Murray, it’s hard to see how Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady won’t chew them up.
Tight End Tyler Higbee was a key factor in his performance with two touchdowns, ending with six catches for 55 yards. Giving him a prominent role on the offense makes Stafford and Kupp even more dangerous.
The Rams’ offensive line was bossed around in the biggest game of the season. San Francisco dominated the front, putting Stafford under constant pressure (22 times, according to the PFF) and recording eight tackles behind the scrimmage line.
Lead tackler Jordan Fuller left with an apparent right ankle injury in the fourth quarter. His absence could be overwhelming for a runner-up who already relies heavily on him and Ramsey as Darious Williams, Dont’e Deayon, Nick Scott and David Long all fight.
8 – Stafford’s total touchdown passes and interceptions in the last four games. His 41 TD passes this season of 17 games was his career high, but his 17 picks were his most since 2013.
The Rams defeated Arizona in December with decisive big plays on offense and defense, while Murray’s group reached a total of 447 yards. Los Angeles will likely have to come up with big numbers again to put Arizona down, which has allowed no less than 22 points since mid-November.
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