The walk-off punt return that beat the Rams and ended their game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday unfolded much like the Rams’ season.
It was pockmarked by regrettable lost opportunities.
A missed tackle here.
Hey, remember that home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers?
A missed tackle there.
How about that defeat against struggling-at-the-time Green Bay?
By the time Tylan Wallace reached the end zone, to give the Ravens a 37-31 overtime victory in front of 70,492 at M&T Bank Stadium, the Rams had lost more than a game.
They wasted an incredible opportunity to upset one of the NFL’s top teams and take firm control of a playoff run.
“That was a gut-wrenching loss,” coach Sean McVay said.
Receiver Cooper Kupp echoed the theme.
“It’s a gut punch,” he said.
The defeat sucked the air out of a Rams team and organization on the brink of its biggest win of the season.
The Rams broke training camp as a team no one outside their facility thought could win. After three consecutive victories, however, they were on the verge of becoming the team nobody wants to play.
No one, seemingly, could stop them.
Not the preseason naysayers. Not the rain that fell during much of the game on Sunday. And — at times — not the Ravens (10-3), the team with the best record in the AFC.
Late in the third quarter, it appeared Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson could almost sense it. After a ball was errantly snapped into the end zone, he kicked it into the stands for a safety rather than letting Aaron Donald and the charging Rams recover it in the end zone for a touchdown.
A victory would have put the Rams over .500 entering a stretch of winnable games against the Washington Commanders, New Orleans Saints and New York Giants before the season finale against the ultra-tough San Francisco 49ers.
Instead, the Rams are 6-7, and probably looking at a best-case scenario finish of 9-8.
That still might be good enough to make the NFC playoffs but 10 wins almost certainly would have assured them a spot.
“We’re still in a decent spot,” safety John Johnson said. “Got a couple games that are, on paper, as winnable, but still got to go out there and do it.”
The Rams must eliminate giving up long touchdown passes such as the ones Jackson completed in the first half … and the second-half plays that few quarterbacks other than Jackson can make.
This wasn’t vintage 2019 Jackson, the one who passed for five touchdowns and rushed for nearly 100 in a 45-6 rout of the Rams at the Coliseum.
But it was not far off.
Jackson passed for 316 yards and three touchdowns, a crucial two-point conversion, and rushed for 70 yards while improving his record against NFC opponents to 19-1.
“I don’t think we executed at a high enough level,” said Rams cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who intercepted a pass. “Against a quality team like that, when you make those mistakes, they’re going to find them.”
Jackson outdueled Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who passed for three touchdowns and nearly engineered a second overtime victory this season.
Stafford said “there’s a million” plays that could have changed the outcome. The punt return was only one of them.
“There were a bunch in there we all could have cleaned up, myself included,” Stafford said, adding that Rams would use the lessons learned “as fuel and kick-start us again.”
Running back Kyren Williams, who rushed for 114 yards in 25 carries, said the Rams did not take advantage of opportunities in all three phases.
“When it’s time to step on their throat,” he said, “you’ve got to step on their throat.”
“We had opportunities in the game to end it, to kill ‘em, to pull away — and we didn’t,” he said.”
The Rams led 28-23 late in the fourth quarter when Jackson tossed a touchdown pass and then a two-point conversion pass to Zay Flowers for a three-point lead.
Rams kicker Lucas Havrisik sent the game into overtime with a field goal with seven seconds left.
The Rams forced the Ravens to go three and out, but the Ravens did the same to the Rams, setting the stage for Wallace’s game-ending return.
McVay and his players said they would not labor over the defeat.
“Being able to go toe to toe, championship-caliber game, late in December, and hey, let’s see how we respond,” McVay said, adding, “We’re going to come back swinging.”
Unfortunately for the Rams, after a huge swing and miss.
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