DETROIT – Should Sean McVay have gone for it at the end of the first half here Sunday night, with 59 seconds left, three timeouts in his pocket and the opportunity to put points on the board?
He didn’t, and this is the way things often turn out in football: The decisions you make early on haunt you at the end.
The Rams fell short by one point Sunday night, dropping a 24-23 Wild Card round decision to the Detroit Lions in as frenzied an atmosphere as they’ve faced all season, maybe longer. Lions fans, 66,367 strong, chanted Jared Goff’s name and booed their one-time civic hero, Matthew Stafford, And Goff gave Detroiters plenty to cheer about in the first half, with touchdown drives on the Lions’ first three possessions of the game and a 21-10 lead.
It wasn’t going to be that easy. The difference ultimately was the Rams’ 0-for-3 production in the red zone, settling for three short field goals on three trips inside the 10.
But the chance that may have gotten away came at the very end of the first half. The Rams got the ball back, at their own 5 after a penalty, with 59 seconds after forcing a Detroit punt – the first possession all night that Goff didn’t lead his team to a touchdown – and had all three of their timeouts left. And they were to get the ball to start the second half. This was a chance to build momentum, trailing 21-17.
They didn’t. Kyren Williams ran off right guard for 6 yards, Stafford found Cooper Kupp in the left flat for 7, but they used none of those timeouts and let the clock run down to zero.
“We were backed up,” McVay said. “We knew we were getting the ball coming out in the second half right there, and the way that it had gone, there was no punts really until that point. It ended up pinning us deep. And so, (the Lions) having three timeouts and how long we would have had to go and where we felt like was appropriate field goal range, we felt like that was the right way to go.
“Once we got the efficient play on second and five, I saw they weren’t going to use the timeout, I felt like that was the smart thing knowing we were getting the ball come out for the second half.”
Maybe the key words there were “where we felt like was appropriate field goal range.” Brett Maher was 3 for 3, true, but they were from 24, 27 and 29 yards. The kicking game has been an issue all year, and how’s this for a second-guess: What if the Rams had gone to the vault to keep Matt Gay last off-season?
Another example of a lack of trust in the kicking game: The Rams went for it on fourth-and-5 from the Detroit 44 late in the first half, and Stafford found Cooper Kupp along the left sideline for a 6-yard gain, on the play right before Tutu Atwell’s 38-yard touchdown reception, which Atwell punctuated by backflipping into the end zone.
Sunday night was the type of atmosphere that had smart watches pinging with high-decibel warnings all night long. The video board was keeping track of the decibel level whenever Stafford and the Rams were on offense, and it got as high as 119. Of course, toward the end of the game it got slightly lower. Hey, fans can get worn out, too.
The first indication that the past is the past came when Stafford was booed when he took the field for warmups. The Lions’ current quarterback, meanwhile, was serenaded with chants of “Ja-red Goff …” from the early arrivals at Ford Field.
The early arrivals also roared each time a Green Bay Packers big play was shown on the board. You’d think the Lions’ NFC North rival wouldn’t get that much love, but the fans were still mad after a referee’s mistake cost them a victory two weeks ago at Dallas, one that would have made them the NFC’s No. 2 seed (and avoided the former quarterback vs. current quarterback drama for at least another week).
So they took it out on the Cowboys. Doesn’t everybody at this time of year?
It has been a magical season in Detroit, especially given the drought that came before. Detroit has not only never appeared in a Super Bowl – the four NFL championship banners hanging from the rafters in Ford Field are from 1935, 1952, 1953 and 1957 – but with the Lions having not won a playoff game in 32 years, and this one being the first home playoff game in 30 seasons, you can understand the hunger.
The noise and the energy, Stafford said afterward, were more fun than they were challenging. (Or if it was challenging, he wasn’t going to admit it.
“It was a good playoff atmosphere,” he said. “Obviously it was a loud crowd. I thought we did a great job communicating all day.”
And as for getting booed in the community that had revered him for so long, up to and including cheering him on in Super Bowl LVI the season after the trade:
“It was a playoff game,” he said “You know, I’m not surprised that they were excited about cheering for their team. I’m not too worried about anybody’s personal feelings towards me in that sense.”
Anyway, the returning frenemy wasn’t going to let this be a runaway. Stafford’s 50-yard strike down the sideline to Puka Nucua, one play after his throwing hand hit a Lion’s helmet on a 10-yard completion to Nacua, made it 14-10 early in the second quarter. And after Goff marched his team to a 21-10 lead on a fourth-and-1 scoring pass to Sam LaPorta, Stafford took his team 75 yards in six plays and ended it with that scoring pass to Atwell.
The Rams made it close on Maher’s third field goal, and a hand injury to running back Kyren Williams might have made a difference at the end of that drive, with 6:43 left. They only got to midfield on their next possession, and it turned out to be the final one of the night and the season.