The Los Angeles Rams were one of the hottest football teams in the National Football League coming into the NFC wildcard round. LA started the year 3-6 but turned a corner once Matthew Stafford, Kyren Williams, and Cooper Kupp all rounded into full health.
The Rams were playing with house money in the playoffs and easily could have went on a run—instead their former quarterback Jared Goff was out for revenge and cut LA’s postseason campaign short. LA fell on the road to the Detroit Lions 24-23.
Which players should shoulder the most blame for the season-ending loss? Let’s take a look at the individual contributions from the wildcard game.
Puka Nacua, WR
After a historic regular season rookie campaign where Nacua claimed records for most catches and yards by a player in their first year, the physical receiver also broke new milestones in the postseason with a nine reception, 181 yard performance. Nacua hauled in a 50-yard TD pass from Stafford.
The Rams didn’t have much consistently going on offense outside of Nacua’s steady contributions.
Puka Nacua doing what he doespic.twitter.com/af1AgWFsaH— Underdog NFL (@Underdog__NFL) January 15, 2024
Brett Maher, K
Maher missed an extra point in his return to the team last week against the San Francisco 49ers, so the veteran was on rocky ground coming into the playoffs. However, he made all three of his field goal attempts and all two extra points. It’s unlikely that Maher will be LA’s kicker next year but wilder things have happened.
The bigger problem is that the Rams settled for three field goals. We will get to that...
Ernest Jones, MLB
Raheem Morris made sound adjustments in the second half with a wider defensive front and increased interior rushes by Ernest Jones. Jones was officially credited with two sacks and his presence often made Goff uncomfortable. The MLB led the team at nine tackles along with slot corner Quentin Lake.
Ernest Jones just flat out balls out every week!!— Sidelines South Carolina (@SSN_Gamecocks) January 15, 2024
Should be a pro bowler tbh!
Matthew Stafford, QB
Stafford and the Rams have already won their Super Bowl, so it makes it somewhat easier to stomach this loss; however, Goff was consistently the better passer in this game despite being a “throw in” in the QB swap from three years ago. Goff made big throw after big throw on late downs, including on a key pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown to seal the win and by hanging in the pocket on fourth down at the goal line to find Sam LaPorta for a touchdown. Meanwhile, Stafford missed Kupp multiple times: one along the sideline for what would have been a potential 50-yard gain and again in the end zone. This in part is why the Rams were forced to settle for three field goals. My biggest gripe is that most red zone throws seemed to be low probability (fades, etc.)
Stafford and Kupp have missed each other on big plays twice so far today. Did convert the fourth-and-medium first half.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 15, 2024
Goff has now officially done something Stafford never did in his time with the Lions, and that’s winning a playoff game. It’s impossible to cleanly separate the Lions’ historical struggles with Stafford’s potential as a quarterback, but this game also highlights why he should not be blameless for Detroit’s lack of success over his tenure there.
Ultimately it was the margin at quarterback that decided the outcome in this game. Goff sent Stafford and the Rams packing.
Red Zone Offense
The story of the first half is that the Rams settled for a field goal on their opening possession while the Lions jumped out to three-straight scoring drives. LA slowed the Lions’ momentum in the second half, but the offense wasn’t able to land a counter punch. About midway through the fourth quarter LA was driving and had the ball on the 11-yard line. They settled for a field goal to draw Detroit’s lead to one point when a touchdown would have put the pressure on Goff.
Fortunately, Brett Maher was perfect in this game and no points were left off the board entirely.
Story of the game?— Ramblin' Fan (@RamblinFan) January 15, 2024
Rams 0-3 in red zone
Lions 3-3 in red zone
Sean McVay, Head Coach
McVay/Stafford’s use of two timeouts early in the third quarter hindered the team’s ability to get the ball back when LA settled for a field goal with around four minutes left in the game. Goff hit St. Brown for a new set of downs and the final dagger, but more timeouts could have given the Rams a fighting chance.
You could also ding McVay for not running the ball more in the red zone, though LA didn’t have resounding success on the ground in this contest. Play calling towards the goal line often seemed low-probability at best.
One last but minor complaint: the Rams had the ball with in the late second quarter with around a minute on the clock and three timeouts and did not make an attempt at pushing the ball down the field. What would Dan Campbell have done on the other sideline? Sure, you could have a negative play and give points to Detroit just before the half, but it’s the playoffs and you need to be as aggressive as possible.
The Rams were punished for their conservative approach and missteps in clock management in this game.
Michael Hoecht, OLB
Hoecht had some success as a pass rusher off the edge against two strong pass protecting tackles; however, he was consistently lost in coverage against a talented Detroit receiving corps. This isn’t a knock on Hoecht by any means as much as a criticism of the coaching staff for deploying him in such a role. The Lions earned several key first downs with Hoecht in coverage and these plays seemed to come too easily.
Coverage snaps by players listed at 300+ pounds this season— Ben Linsey (@benlinsey_) January 15, 2024
Michael Hoecht: 255 and counting
Harrison Phillips: 28
Michael Pierce: 17
Cooper Kupp, WR
While Nacua was clearly the focal point on offense, Kupp seemed like an after thought. Sure, if Stafford doesn’t overthrow the star receiver along the sideline for what would have maybe been a 50-yard gain the box score would look much more favorable. However, Stafford and Kupp weren’t on the same page in this game. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Kupp be consistently productive, and it’s fair to question whether he has a role on this team moving forward.
Would the Rams be better off taking a receiver early in the draft and funding a way out of Kupp’s large contract? Does the emergence of Nacua as a star make Kupp expendable?