Wherever the Rams go this season, they’ll carry this game with them.
Maybe their controversial, last-minute, 35-32 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Bills Stadium will end up costing them a spot in the playoffs.
Maybe their comeback from 25 points down to lead the Bills late in the game will give them an identity and roadmap for the rest of the year.
Or maybe both at once.
Heading to the airport after their first defeat, the Rams chose to pick the positives out of a sensational game full of turning points, big performances and bigger mistakes.
“We learned one thing, that we’re going to fight to the end,” Rams safety John Johnson said. “I guess that’s a positive to take home.”
The Rams fell to 2-1. The Bills are 3-0.
Credit Johnson for the interception that turned the momentum the Rams’ way after they fell behind 28-3, unable to stop Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the first half, a problem that would return late in the second.
Credit Jared Goff (321 yards passing) for recovering from a bad interception in the first half to run for the first of the Rams’ touchdowns on four straight possessions in the second half and pass to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp for the second and third.
Credit defensive tackle Aaron Donald for the sack and recovery of an Allen fumble that set up the drive for the touchdown that put the Rams ahead 32-28 with 4:30 to play, capped by running back Darrell Henderson’s touchdown on his career-high 114th rushing yard.
“Yeah, I thought we had it,” Donald said. “We just didn’t finish it the right way. We’ve just got to be better.”
But in the end, blame an early miss on a 53-yard field goal try by Samuel Sloman, missed tackles and blown pass coverage, and a pass-interference flag against cornerback Darious Williams that flew as the Rams began to celebrate an apparent stop on fourth down and 9.
A play after the penalty, Allen (311 yards) completed his fourth touchdown pass, a three-yarder to Tyler Kroft that put the Bills up 35-32 with 15 seconds on the clock.
The Rams were out of time.
“I hated for our guys that it ended up the way it did and it came down to some of the things that it came down to,” coach Sean McVay said after the Rams just missed what would have been their biggest winning comeback in his four seasons.
“But we’re a tough group, we’re a mentally tough group. We’re going to use this as an opportunity to respond, and we’re not going to allow the Bills to beat us twice.”
The Rams spent the first two Sundays of the NFL season affirming the potential of a team that was widely expected to be a non-factor in this year’s championship race.
They spent most of the third Sunday confronting weaknesses that could keep them from returning to the playoffs right away.
The Rams knew they would have to slow down Allen, both the league-leading passer and the willing runner. But they could do neither when it counted.
By halftime, Allen had thrown for touchdowns to two tight ends, covering one yard to Lee Smith for the game’s first score and three yards to Kroft to give the Bills a three-score lead. In between, Allen ran one yard for a touchdown.
It’s hard to know what difference it might have made if Rams safety Jordan Fuller, the rookie star for the defense in the first two weeks, hadn’t gone out of the game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter and been replaced by Taylor Rapp.
The Rams secondary wasn’t able to contain the Bills’ wide receivers on Allen strikes for 39 yards on Buffalo’s second touchdown drive, and 21 and 29 on its third.
“I just think we had a few busts (in coverage),” Johnson said. “Fuller went down early in the game, we had to move some guys around. We had some mental errors that really cost us on some big plays. It’s nothing we can’t clean up.”
Rams missed tackles hurt this time more than they did in victories over Dallas and Philadelphia, notably on a 16-yard run by Buffalo’s Daren Singletary, the biggest play on the Bills’ first touchdown drive.
On the other side, Goff didn’t come close to repeating his 13-for-13 start against the Eagles.
After completing his first five passes, Goff was pressured into a throw-away, and then threw an interception to safety Levi Wallace when he missed target Van Jefferson over the middle on a third-and-10 play in Bills territory early in the second quarter.
The Rams were harmed by another early-season problem that they’d been getting away with: Sloman’s missed field goal after a promising first drive was the rookie’s third missed kick in three games, two field goals and an extra point.
McVay blamed himself for putting the pressure on the rookie kicker on fourth and 13 from the Bills’ 34, and the offense for the third-down sack of Goff that left the Rams there.
Overall, the offensive line had another sold game, exemplified more by the Rams’ 167 yards rushing than by the pressure the Bills put on Goff early.
McVay said that if the Rams had to learn some lessons the hard way, it was better for it to happen early in the season.
“I can’t wait to go back to work with this group. I love what this team’s about. I think we can use this as an opportunity to gain some strength and some momentum. Fortunately these are things that if they occur early in the season, and you respond in the right way, they can be great learning opps that don’t cost you in the long run.
“I was very proud of this group,” said McVay, who was trying to open a season 3-0 for the third year in a row. “I think I learned a lot about this team, things that I already hoped and thought.
“I saw a lot of individual efforts that were outstanding. I saw a resilient group. I saw a team that stayed connected when you go down 28-3 against a really good football team.”
Goff said the comeback, if not the result, “shows who we are as a team.”
“Obviously, you would have loved to win that game, but at the end of the day we learned we’re never out of it,” the quarterback said.
A lesson to take on the difficult road ahead.