It shouldn’t have come down to a nerve-jangling, nail-biting finish.
The defending Super Bowl champion Rams had big enough leads over the Atlanta Falcons late enough Sunday to suggest they’d easily even their record at 1-1 and rebound strongly after being thrashed by the Buffalo Bills in their season opener. Their offense was balanced and productive.
Their defense was solid. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had two passes intercepted, but the Rams had lived with 17 of those during their championship season. They minimized the damage.
But what should have been a waltz for the Rams disintegrated into a hold-your-breath ending in a 31-27 victory at SoFi Field. The Falcons outscored the Rams 24-10 in a sometimes chaotic second half, which ended on a sack of Atlanta quarterback Marcus Mariota at the Falcons’ 40-yard line.
“That was definitely an interesting one at the end,” Stafford said, able to smile even though the Rams shouldn’t have made it quite so dramatic.
After leading 28-3 in the third quarter and 31-10 with 12:13 left in the fourth quarter, the Rams came dangerously close to putting themselves in an 0-2 hole and joining the Baltimore Ravens, Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns in blowing sizable leads and losing Sunday. That’s a trend they didn’t need to follow.
“It was definitely closer than it was supposed to be,” running back Cam Akers said. “We shouldn’t have been in that position. We’ve got to finish better. That will be the test this week in practice.”
As coach Sean McVay told his players in a typically animated postgame speech, the NFL doesn’t award style points. A win is a win is a win. There’s no asterisk in the standings to note they almost gave the game away or that the crowd of 71,802 seemed less than convinced that the Rams are on a path to repeat as champions.
“Can we clean up all that stuff? No doubt about it,” McVay shouted. “But do not ever take for granted how difficult it is to win week in and week out.”
That’s basic coach-speak, but he did add an important point that could be the most important takeaway the Rams gain from this game. “Do not allow this to be anything but a building block,” he said.
It’s easy to linger on their near-collapse instead of on what they did right. They’ve got to clean up their turnovers. Clamp down when they’re ahead. Don’t let an opponent wriggle out of their grasp. Those are things champions do.
“It all comes down to finishing. If we do that, we’ll be where we want to be,” said Akers, who carried the ball 15 times for 44 yards and caught two passes for 18 yards. “Today, obviously we didn’t finish how we wanted to, so we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and put some work in.”
If they can take this game as a potential jumping-off point for the strengths they showed Sunday, this eventually will look and feel like a better win than it looked and felt like in the late stages.
“I think it’s still early,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “I’ve been around long enough that you’ve got to take the wins as you get them. A lot of these things that happen can be easily fixed, and so that’s encouraging.”
The patched-together offensive line, which allowed Buffalo to sack Stafford seven times in the opener, protected Stafford well enough that he was sacked only once. Maybe most importantly, the Rams found new dimensions to their offense.
They were leading 14-3 before Stafford connected for the first time with Cooper Kupp, who finished with 11 receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
They used Ben Skowronek as a fullback and targeted him three times and had Brandon Powell — usually a punt and kick returner — carry the ball once and catch it once.
Tight end Tyler Higbee, who had two drops last week and made five catches on 11 targets, was more efficient against Atlanta, making seven catches for 71 yards on nine targets.
And unlike last week, when they targeted wide receiver Allen Robinson only twice, the Rams got him involved on the second play of their first possession with a pass he turned into a 15-yard gain. He also caught the short pass that became their first touchdown, in the first quarter, and had an apparent touchdown called back because a medical timeout had been called before the snap. He caught four passes, with the final reception the 500th of his career.
Stafford said he has been comfortable with Robinson all along and blamed himself for not getting the ball to him more often against Buffalo.
“He’s going to continue to grow into his role in this offense,” Stafford said. “We’re going to continue to learn about each other.”
Robinson was happy with his involvement Sunday.
“I felt great. It’s about, it’s a process to winning, and things like that,” he said. “For me, it’s about locking in each and every day, getting better, locking into the game plan and things like that.
“But it feels great. Like I said before, that’s the main focus — getting wins, being able to lock in, do my part to the best of my ability and be the best player I can be.”
They weren’t at their best as a team Sunday. But by expanding their offense and holding on to win, they’ve given themselves a chance to build from here. They can’t fumble that away.