ATLANTA— Watching a digital diagram of a play informed by the GPS tracker in his uniform, all Rams wide receiver Robert Woods could do was shake his head. The Rams had just lost Super Bowl LIII, 13-3, and standing at his locker staring at a phone screen, he saw for the first time just how perfect that particular play was executed by everyone but his quarterback, Jared Goff. Woods had been the perfect decoy, attracting three defenders on one route, leaving teammate Brandin Cooks wide open for six points. And yet, Goff and the Rams dropped the ball on their best chance to take a lead.
"Three guys were following me, which is never really the case," Woods said. "It looked like they blew the coverage."
The Patriots defense, renowned for strict assignment discipline, made a rare mental error. They blew it, which never happens. But Goff, the third-year quarterback playing in just his fourth career playoff game, one-upped them. The wasted opportunity was, in many ways, a microcosm of Goff's night. Cynical observers noted what appeared to be nerves in Goff's pregame demeanor—his twitching fingers and faraway look during the national anthem made headlines. And he validated those critiques with a 19-of-38 passing day with an interception and nary a passing touchdown for the second time in these playoffs.
Here's what you might have missed if you watched the broadcast and saw only the zoomed-in replay: Down 3-0 with 3:42 left in the third quarter, Woods (No. 17) flashes from right to left across the field on a crossing route. Brandin Cooks (No. 12) runs a post from the other side. Goff fakes a handoff, looks downfield, and lingers. It's an extra half-second, but it feels like forever, because by the time his wobbly floater arrives almost 50 yards downfield to a previously wide open Cooks in the end zone, Jason McCourty is there to break it up. Goff is sacked on the next play, and the Rams settle for a field goal.
It's a play that will haunt Goff and the 10 other men on the field with him for some time. It could have changed everything. And it wasn't even the first time Rams coach Sean McVay uncorked it on Sunday. With 4:19 left in the first quarter, the Rams lined up in the same formation, ran the very same play, and threw the ball incomplete to Woods on the crosser. The Patriots were betraying the Cover 1 man scheme they'd relied on in the playoffs and playing an aggressive Cover 4, with two corners and two safeties responsible for four quarters of the field.
Safeties Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty—Jason's twin brother—pounced on Woods, the crosser, the second time around. And Cooks slipped by both of them. But Goff hesitated, and Jason McCourty bailed out everybody with a dead sprint from the right side of the field to the back of the end zone.
"If he throws it sooner, yeah it's a touchdown," Jones said from the winning locker room. "They thought they could set that up and get some success. That's the kind of play that gets overlooked, but it was a huge play in the game. They had that one over us, But J-Mac made the play."
Said Devin McCourty: "We blew it on the frontside, and then J just made a good play. We wanted J to be back there in case they threw the post, but we wanted to have another guy on him too."
The other guy wasn't there, and while the Patriots were successful in rattling Goff in the pocket all night (an increase in defensive line stunts flummoxed L.A.'s celebrated offensive line), the quarterback had plenty of time on the play in question. After all, there were but three routes run on the play; Rams running back C.J. Anderson sprinted to the flats, and then there were Cooks and Woods.
On a night when some predicted the torch might be passed from the generation of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks which Tom Brady vanguards—men named Manning, Brees, Favre and Roethlisberger—to the kids who grew up on spread football, Goff demonstrated why there's no substitute for experience. He failed to trust his eyes, and there isn't a quarterback guru or trailblazing offensive coach who can fix that in a snap. In this case, time is the best and only teacher.
"Brandin popped up late and surprised everybody," Woods said after getting his fill of the painful GIF.
Everybody, including the guy throwing the football.
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