The 2019 Los Angeles Rams can not claim to be as good as they were in 2017 and 2018, but the gap in win-loss record, and potentially a road to the Super Bowl, was not very wide. In fact, you could maybe point to three plays that separate the Rams from 9-7 and 12-4.
The Rams finished second in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in both 2017 and 2018. In 2017, they had the number six offense, number six defense, and number two special teams unit. In 2018, they were second on offense, 17th on defense, and 17th on special teams. But last season they fell to 12th overall, including 16th on offense, ninth on defense, and 23rd on special teams.
So it is not as though Sean McVay’s team was as strong, but a bye week and homefield advantage are probably the most powerful tools any team can have in the playoffs. And LA was very close to repeating both of those advantages in 2019 — further closing the book on any idea that there is a “Super Bowl hangover” of note.
I’m not here to drudge up bad memories, so I’ll keep it brief.
The Rams lost a Week 5 Thursday night (always wonky games that probably don’t belong on the schedule) game to the Seahawks on a missed 44-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein. Flipping that one game alone puts LA in second place to end the year and Seattle in third, giving the Rams a wild card berth.
In Week 16, a Saturday game, LA was tied 31-31 with the 49ers and less than a minute in regulation. On their own 31, facing 3rd and 16, the Niners either needed a big play for a first or they could have played it safe for overtime. They went for the win, throwing it deep to a wide open Emmanuel Sanders. The play gained 46 yards and Robbie Gould casually made a 33-yard field goal to win it as time expired. But it wasn’t just busted coverage that sealed their fate that day.
On that play, San Francisco right tackle Mike McGlinchey false started.
The ball is still in backup center Ben Garland’s hand as McGlinchey is beginning to pull out of his stance. I’ve seen countless uncalled false starts this season, but here was a rather blatant one on a crucial gain for the eventual NFC champions. Had it been called, had Sanders not been open, or for all we know, had the Niners not traded for Sanders midseason, perhaps the Rams get this ball back and drive down the field with one timeout, or win in overtime.
If you combined a made kick vs Seattle with a called false start vs the Niners, you might get LA to 11-5 right there alone, same record as they had in 2017. With San Francisco at 12-4 and the Seahawks at 10-6. But could they find one more?
There is perhaps not as blatant of a single play to point out vs the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10, but it was a close 17-12 loss that could have turned on multiple moments.
Like perhaps not running a fake punt from 4th-and-1 on your own 29, or at least attempting to run a play with your offense. Or not allowing the Steelers to convert 4th-and-1 from their own 34, when they didn’t pull their offense off of the field. Or not throwing an interception from midfield to start the second half. Or not missing a 56-yard field goal (or not holding to potentially make it a longer attempt) to end the first half. Or converting a touchdown when you had 2nd down on the Steelers eight instead of settling for a field goal. Or converting a series that was 1st-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 30 and 1:40 remaining. And on 4th-and-10, a deep shot to Josh Reynolds that drew these comments from the booth: “Incomplete without a flag” and “I don’t know why this is the shot that Jared Goff felt to take.“
Could this have been pass interference? Tremaine Edmunds didn’t just not look for the ball, he gave it less attention than Ben Roethlisberger gives to a treadmill.
The point is, I don’t think that LA had to be any “better” of a team in 2019 in order to be 12-4, they just had to catch three breaks. There’s long been talk of a Super Bowl “hangover” for teams that go all the way to February and don’t come away with the Lombardi trophy and while I don’t know that many people still ascribe to that narrative, I did think it was worthy of discussion again.
In part because the Super Bowl is back again and also because the Rams, like a number of teams you’ll see on this following list, didn’t have to necessarily be “as good” or “better” than they were the year before in order to get right back into the January competition.
Only one team in the last 12 years has posted a losing record the year after losing the Super Bowl.
2018: The Patriots went 11-5 and won the Super Bowl. They remained fairly steady, as usual.
2016: The Panthers went 6-10, an increase of nine losses from the previous season.
2015: The Seahawks went 10-6, but only won a wild card game on a shank by Blair Walsh, then fell behind 31-0 to Carolina in the divisional round, losing 31-24.
2013: The 49ers went 12-4, winning one more game than they had during their Super Bowl season. They lost in the NFC Championship to Seattle on Richard Sherman’s tip in the end zone.
2011: The Steelers went 12-4, same record as they had the previous year. They lost 29-23 to Tim Tebow in the wild card round, perhaps signaling some sort of curse actually.
2010: The Colts went 10-6, losing to Mark Sanchez and the Jets in the wild card round, oh no.
2009: The Cardinals went 10-6, actually winning more games than they did the year before when they fell just shy of a Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh. Arizona won a 51-45 wild card game over the Packers, then lost 45-14 to the eventual champion Saints.
2008: The Patriots went 11-5 despite losing Tom Brady in Week 1.
2007: The Bears went 7-9 a year after going 13-3. The bigger surprise is they went 13-3 with Rex Grossman, not that they went 7-9 with Grossman, Brian Griese, and Kyle Orton.
2006: The Seahawks went 9-7, winning a wild card game after Tony Romo botched a snap on a short field goal (the second time on this list that a year after losing the Super Bowl, Seattle won a wild card game on what should’ve been a chip shot). They lost 27-24 to the Bears in the next round.
2005: The Eagles went 6-10, with Donovan McNabb being replaced by Mike McMahon for seven games due to injury.
We’ve seen both the Patriots and Broncos bounce back from Super Bowl losses to win it again with the next couple of years. The Rams clearly do not lack talent and could be right back in it in 2020 without even having to change much. They were not far from being 12-4 and potentially winning the NFC West.
In this scenario, they split the season series with the Niners and tie them at 12-4. They would then win the division record tiebreaker at 5-1 compared to 4-2 for San Francisco. And that means that the Rams would’ve had the two seed, same as the Niners.
They can get right back in it next year. But I’m not sure we can expect any kind of hangover from San Francisco. Maybe we can hope for false starts to be called again however.