SPORTS DIGEST: Rams come up short against Lions in wild card round

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Nobody expected the Rams to be in the playoffs this season. They came thisclose to still being there, but in the end they lost to former quarterback Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions, 24-23, in the only game during wild card weekend that was close.

Goff and his successor, Matthew Stafford, had a great quarterback duel. In the end, Stafford had the better statistics but Goff had the win.

Goff completed 22 of 27 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. Stafford completed 25 of 36 passes for 367 yards and two touchdowns.

But the Lions won the game early, driving 75 yards to touchdowns on their first two possessions of the game to lead 14-3 after the first quarter.

The Rams won the rest of the game 20-10 but were unable to put the ball into the end zone on three trips to the red zone.

Brett Maher kicked field goals of 24, 27 and 29 yards. Stafford hit Puka Nacua and Tutu Atwell for two long touchdowns, but when the Rams got close, head coach Sean McVay’s play calling got more conservative and the Lions defense stiffened, forcing the three short field goals.

On the other side of the ball, the Lions got in the red zone three times and put the ball in the end zone all three times.

It was a well-played game. Neither team committed a turnover and there were only nine penalties in the game.

After going 5-12 last season after winning the 2022 Super Bowl, the Rams have to look back on this season as successful.

Stafford, who missed the last eight games of the 2022 season, rebounded with 3,965 yards and 24 touchdowns. 

The Rams also developed a great receiver and running back this season. 

Puca Nacua, a fifth round draft choice from Brigham Young University, established NFL rookie records for receptions and receiving yardage with 105 catches for 1,486 yards.

Kyren Williams, a fifth round draft pick from Notre Dame in the 2022 draft, became the Rams leading running back, finishing the year with 1,144 yards and 15 total touchdowns.

The Rams also developed some fine young players on the other side of the ball.

Rookies Kobie Turner, a nose tackle, and Byron Young, an outside linebacker, finished with 9 and 8 sacks respectively (perennial all pro Aaron Donald also had 8).

Looking ahead, the Rams have some work to do in the offseason, but general manager Les Snead and McVay have demonstrated a knack for getting the most out of the team’s draft picks each year. The Rams need more depth in the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary, but they have a friendlier salary cap this offseason than they did last year and should be able to make enough roster improvements to compete with the San Francisco 49ers at the top of the NFC Western Division next season.

YOUNG QBS: It used to be that you could pick your playoff game winners simply by comparing starting quarterbacks, but that wasn’t true last weekend in the wild car round of the playoffs.

Goff beat Stafford in the Rams-Lions matchup. Rookie C.J. Stroud beat veteran Joe Flacco in the Houston-Cleveland game and first-year starter Jordan Love defeated veteran Dak Prescott in the Green Bay-Dallas game.

Anybody picking Baker Mayfield over Jalen Hurts also can take a bow. Only Pat Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs defeating Tua Tagavailoa and the Miami Dolphins and Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills defeating Mason Rudolph and the Pittsburgh Steelers went according to plans.

That leaves us with four games this weekend that are hard to predict. 

The two number one seeds, the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC and the 49ers in the NFC, play Jan. 20. The Ravens get things started against the Houston Texans at 1:30 p.m., with the 49ers and Green Bay Packers following at 5:15 p.m.

The Ravens and 49ers are both nine-point favorites, but they are facing hot, young quarterbacks who didn’t let the pressure of their first playoff starts get to them last week.

Stroud completed 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Texans dismantling of the Cleveland Browns. The Browns actually led 14-10 early in the second quarter, but the Texans outscored them 35-0 the rest of the way, blowing the game open with two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns within two minutes of each other in the third quarter.

Stroud avoided turnovers and outplayed Flacco, who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens once upon a time.

What Stroud did to Flacco and the Browns, Jordan Love did to the Dallas Cowboys the next day.

Love apparently learned something watching Aaron Rodgers play for the Packers during his first three years in the league. In his first playoff start, he completed 16 of 21 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns (almost identical to Stroud’s stats) in the Packers 48-32 win over the Cowboys. 

The final score made the game seem closer than it was. The Packers led 48-16 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Dallas scored two meaningless touchdowns that were just window dressing.

Stroud and Love will probably come to the end of the line this weekend against the Ravens and 49ers, who both play better defense than the Cowboys and the Browns.

On Jan. 21, I expect the Lions to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs to defeat the Buffalo Bills.

GENESIS EXEMPTION: Los Angeles’ annual contribution to the PGA Golf Tour, the Genesis Invitational, is coming to the Riviera Country Club Feb. 15-18. On Jan. 17, tournament host Tiger Woods announced that Chase Johnson had received the Charlie Sifford Exemption for the tournament. 

Sifford was the first African American to play on the PGA Tour, joining the tour in 1961. During his years on the tour, he won two events, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.

The exemption has been awarded annually since 2009 and represents the advancement of diversity in the game of golf, according to tournament officials.

“Chase earned the 2024 Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption with his play over the past year,” Woods said. “He let his game speak for itself, and that is something I know Charlie would be proud of.”

Johnson played on the PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour and Advocates Professional Golf Association in 2023.

“I am beyond excited to receive the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption and to play in The Genesis Invitational,” Johnson said. “Tiger has been an inspiration to me, and I look forward to putting my game to the test at Riviera and playing in honor of Mr. Sifford.”

Johnson won the John Shippen Invitational last year, which earned him a spot in the field for the PGA Tour’s Detroit event last June. He made the second start of his PGA career in Detroit and made the cut for the first time in his career. He also played in the PGA Tour’s World Wide Technologies Championship and the Butterfield Bermuda Championship in 2023. He made his PGA Tour debut in the 2021 Memorial Tournament.

He made 11 starts in the APGA Tour season in 2023 and won three tournaments, APGA Ascension Classic, APGA Farmers Insurance Cincinnati and APGA Farmers Insurance Austin. He had seven second-place finishes and a fifth place on the APGA Tour.

“My game has been trending consistently for a while, and last year was a nice validation that my approach has been working,” Johnson said. “I have put in the work and know that my game is ready for Riviera.”

Woods also is expected to play in the tournament as he continues to work his way back to the tour. He has announced that he would like to play about once a month this year as he recovers from ankle surgery last year.

Top name golfers including Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler have earned invitations to the tournament. The field will be set Feb. 9, the Friday before the tournament starts.

City News Service contributed to this story.