Sunday's loss to 49ers shows Rams have bigger fish to fry

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Rams' list of inactives was made up exclusively of big names -- Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Andrew Whitworth, Mark Barron, Alec Ogletree, John Sullivan and Lamarcus Joyner. Cooper Kupp was listed as an active participant, but he wore sweats. Jared Goff, Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods were outfitted in those popular yellow-and-blue throwbacks, but they only watched from the sideline.

Someday, perhaps a lot sooner than many would have anticipated, the Rams and the San Francisco 49ers will rekindle a long-standing rivalry in the NFC West. But Sunday's regular-season finale was a far cry from the beginning of it.

The Rams' uninspiring 34-13 loss from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum only emphasized the fact that they have more important matters in front of them.

The Rams finished the 2017 calendar year with an 11-5 record under Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. For further proof of the magic touch McVay displayed through his first season, consider that his decision to rest his starters did not hurt his team's position. The Rams remained the No. 3 seed in their conference, by virtue of losses by the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers. They'll host the Atlanta Falcons (10-6) in the first round on Saturday, with kickoff set for 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC.

"I feel good," Goff said. "I think we match up well."

"It kind of worked in our favor," said Woods, whose team could then advance to face the Minnesota Vikings on the road. "We ended up getting a lot of guys healthy, a lot of guys able to rest. Our biggest thing is just speed and how we play on Sundays, how we feel. I think today will help a lot of the guys to be able to prepare this week and just really get ready for this Sunday, just to be full speed, full go. It's the start of our run."

McVay played his backups mainly because he wanted his key players fresh, but also because he didn't really believe it mattered which team the Rams play in January.

The Rams proved throughout the season that they can beat anybody at full strength. They won five games by more than 25 points, including a road victory over the Seattle Seahawks that all but wrapped up a division title. They finished leading the NFL in points, one year after finishing last in the NFL in points. They have the potential MVP (Gurley), the potential defensive player of the year (Donald) and the likely coach of the year (McVay).

"Name someone who did better," Rams left guard Rodger Saffold said of McVay. "First-year head coach, youngest coach ever, youngest coach to get us to the playoffs. This guy’s out here breaking just as many records as we are."

The Rams' backups didn't have much of a chance against a Jimmy Garoppolo-led 49ers team that finished its season with five consecutive wins. A Rams defense composed mainly of bit players got two interceptions from cornerback Kevin Peterson, but also allowed 7.3 yards per play. Sean Mannion, starting in place of Goff, went 20-of-34 for 169 yards and a lost fumble, his numbers affected by numerous drops.

The only Rams player worth watching was their new kicker, Sam Ficken, who missed his first two attempts in his first regular-season game last week but made two short field goals and an extra point on Sunday.

Asked if he will stick with Ficken for the playoffs, McVay said: "I think so. I think he did a nice job today, made the most of his opportunities; had some good kickoffs as well."

McVay called the Falcons, reigning NFC champions, "a complete football team" that poses "a great challenge" in the wild-card round. Defensively, McVay said, they use similar three-deep, four-underneath principals as the 49ers, Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars. Offensively, they're led by an MVP quarterback, Matt Ryan, two dynamic running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and arguably the game's best wide receiver in Julio Jones.

It'll be up to Trumaine Johnson to cover him.

"You gotta love it, man," Johnson said. "Julio, one of the best receivers out there right now. At the same time, I’m one of the best corners, too. It’s going to be fun."

The Falcons haven't really been the same since their former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, left to coach the 49ers. In fact, research from ESPN Stats & Information reveals that the Rams and Falcons have basically traded places on that side of the ball. From 2016 to 2017, the Falcons accounted for the largest decrease in points per game (33.8 to 22.1), while the Rams accounted for the largest increase (14.0 to 29.9).

But falling to the No. 4 seed might not have been a bad thing for the Rams, either. It would've meant their second-round opponent could've been the No. 1-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, who don't seem to have the same spark on offense since Nick Foles replaced Carson Wentz three weeks ago.

Rams players didn't seem to care.

"I ain't got no experience with the playoffs, so I don't know how all this works," Gurley said. "But it's cool. We're in the playoffs and all teams got a chance now. It doesn't really matter what your record is. Everybody starts 0-0."