It was supposed to be the start of the Rams’ second-half sprint.
Coming off a win and an open date, they were confident. With several starters returning from injuries, they were stronger. The defending Super Bowl champions appeared poised to finally make good on their proclamation to run it back.
But the Rams are undeniably running in reverse.
They are running without direction, careening toward possibly eliminating themselves from a postseason opportunity.
And coach Sean McVay and his team continue running up losses — on a seemingly endless loop — against the San Francisco 49ers.
A 31-14 defeat Sunday at Sofi Stadium extended the Rams’ streak of regular-season futility against the 49ers to eight games.
It has been close to a half-decade, circa 2018, that McVay outsmarted and outwitted friend and mentor Kyle Shanahan in an NFC West game.
The Rams can point to a victory over the 49ers in last season’s NFC championship game at SoFi Stadium, but that qualifies as a one-off — and a lucky one at that thanks to a dropped interception by the 49ers — not an indication that the Rams have the makeup to become the first team since the 2004 season to repeat as Super Bowl champion.
The loss Sunday dropped the Rams’ record to 3-4, a first for McVay.
“This is a different situation,” McVay said, “but that doesn’t mean you press the panic button.”
History says McVay might be right. The Rams won the division last season without defeating the 49ers in the regular season — and won the Super Bowl.
But in 2019 they missed the playoffs for the only time under McVay.
One positive to come out of Sunday’s loss: The Rams do not have to face the 49ers again this season.
On Oct. 3 at Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers stomped the Rams 24-9. On Sunday, quarterback Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford scrambled for a rare touchdown and tossed a touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp before the Rams blew a 14-10 halftime lead and got shut out in the second half.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with all the history, whatever it was,” McVay said. “They outplayed us in the second half.”
Said Stafford: “Just because you have a good drive here or there doesn’t mean the game’s going to go that way — it’s a four-quarter game for a reason.”
Tight end Tyler Higbee is in his seventh season with the Rams, so he has been around long enough to remember what it feels like to defeat the 49ers in the regular season.
“We gotta figure it out,” Higbee said. “They step up and play well every time we play them, and we don’t.”
Edge rusher Leonard Floyd echoed Higbee. “We beat ourselves like every time we play them for some reason,” he said.
However, it is “still early,” said Floyd, who recorded his first two sacks of the season.
“We got time to really make some noise,” he said, “if we turn it around right now.”
That will be a challenge for a team that this month lost twice to the 49ers and also to the Dallas Cowboys. The Rams barely escaped going 0 for October by defeating the struggling Carolina Panthers.
That victory came two weeks ago, when Christian McCaffrey was still playing with the Panthers.
A few days later, the 49ers outbid the Rams in a trade for the versatile star running back.
And Sunday, the Rams felt the pain of that rare defeat in every way.
McCaffrey rushed for a touchdown. He caught a touchdown pass. He also threw for a touchdown and accounted for 183 of his team’s 368 yards of offense.
Despite facing a 49ers offense devoid of star running back/wide receiver Deebo Samuel and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and a defense missing lineman Arik Armstead and linebacker Dre Greenlaw, the Rams still could not win.
Nick Bosa, the 49ers’ star defensive end, said he was “kind of surprised” when the Rams “gave up a little early” and attempted to run the ball on a third-and-16 play with less than six minutes left.
“I guess they didn’t have confidence in coming back,” he said.
The Rams’ confidence might erode further if the ankle injury Kupp suffered late in the game knocks him out of the lineup.
Kupp not only is the reigning NFL offensive player of the year, but he also is perhaps the Rams’ most potent rushing threat.
Estranged running back Cam Akers did not play for the second consecutive game as the Rams continue to seek a trade partner. Darrell Henderson got only four carries. Practice squad call-up Ronnie Rivers started and ran for 21 yards in eight carries.
“Point blank period — we have to do a better job of running the ball,” Kupp said. “I just think there’s no getting around that.”
Whether the traditionally active Rams make a move for a running back, edge rusher or another position by Tuesday’s trade deadline remains to be seen.
“We got a lot of things that we gotta be able to address,” McVay said.
Their next game is Sunday at Tampa Bay. It is the first of five remaining games away from SoFi Stadium, including back-to-back trips to New Orleans and Kansas City, a “Monday Night Football” matchup in Green Bay and the season finale against division-leading Seattle.
After seven games of inconsistent performances, the next 10 might qualify as McVay’s greatest challenge.
“I’m looking forward to being the right guy for these guys,” he said.