THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- When the bright lights turned on, the Los Angeles Rams simply weren't ready.
Call it a lack of playoff experience. Or the fact the Rams remain one of the youngest teams in the league, led by a second-year, 23-year-old quarterback and the youngest head coach in the NFL.
Or maybe it was simply the Rams picking the worst possible time to play their least polished game of the season.
In any event, the Rams seemed stuck in mud and a bit too small for the big stage in their 26-13 loss to the Falcons in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
The setback halted a remarkable Rams transformation and left them trying to figure out what went wrong to end it and what they needed to do to make sure their next playoff berth results in a prolonged run.
"I think we are young and anytime you can get in a big game, like I said, it's all experience added for everybody," said quarterback Jared Goff. "Everybody in the organization -- it's all experience added. We look to come back even stronger next year.
"It sucks that we're going to have to take some time off now, but whenever that time does come to get back to work I think we'll be ready to go."
Said head coach Sean McVay: "I think you do have a lot of respect for experience and certainly this is an example that we can learn from. But, what I don't think is, is I don't think (the) game was too big for our players. We're a young football team, we didn't make enough plays to be able to get it done, but I don't think that means it was too big for our guys. I do think that they'll look at it and say, 'How can we learn from the things that occurred in this game if we're fortunate enough to even be in this position again?'
"It's so difficult to win in this league, let alone get into the playoffs where you give yourself a chance to compete. I think our players appreciate that and it's going to be great motivation as we go into the offseason program leading into next year."
Sammy Watkins, who the Rams traded for during training camp in the hope he'd be the dynamic go-to wide receiver they've been missing for so long, had a good but not great season statistically while catching 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns.
But in many ways, he became a more complete player while accepting his role, developing into a better blocker and running crisp routes even though much of the time it was as a decoy.
"I just think that helped my game all around -- mentally, physically," he said. "To be a blocker, to also do both, run full-speed routes, and just be an all-around pro. I think I was that this year in my first year."
Watkins is a free agent at the end of the season, but seems eager to return on a long-term contract.
"Most definitely. Like I said, I think everything is right here as far as coaches -- they are building something here," he said. "Great players. I do also know there's a lot of free-agent guys and a lot of things going on, but that's not my focus. Everything will play out the way it should."
Rams quarterback Jared Goff, coming off a rocky rookie season in which some people were calling him a bust, responded with an excellent second season in which he was named as a Pro-Bowl alternate.
In the process, he guided the Rams to their first division title in 13 years and the Rams' first winning season in 14 seasons.
The future, he believes, is bright.
"Yeah, I think so," Goff said. "Like I said, I think it's just the beginning. We've got such a good, young group here and so many guys. You see Todd (Gurley), Aaron (Donald), Alec (Ogletree), I'm young, a lot of our O-line is young, Rob Woods, Sammy, Cooper's (Kupp) young -- a lot of good, young players all across the board.
"And it's just the beginning for this group and having the coaches we have, and having everyone in the front office we expect it to only go up from here. And we're excited about the future."
NOTES: QB Jared Goff completed 24-of-45 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown in his first playoff game. Goff's 45 pass attempts are tied for the second-most in franchise postseason history with Kurt Warner, vs. Tennessee (1/30/00 -- SB XXXIV) and Jim Everett, at Minnesota (12/26/88). ... RB Todd Gurley rushed 14 times for 101 yards, a 7.2-yard average, in his first playoff game. Gurley had two long rushes of 26 and 33 yards. It marked Gurley's seventh game this season with 100-plus yards, his first of the postseason and 12th career. Gurley is the first Rams running back to notch a 100-plus yard game in his postseason debut since Jim Gillette had 17 carries for 101 yards vs. Washington (12/16/45). ... WR Robert Woods registered his third 100-plus receiving yard game this season and sixth game of his career in his first playoff game. Woods led the team in receptions (nine) and receiving yards (142). The 142 receiving yards are the fourth-highest output in a postseason game in Rams history. Woods is the fourth receiver in franchise history to post 100-plus receiving yards in their postseason debut with the Rams. ... WR Cooper Kupp hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass in his first playoff game. It marked his sixth touchdown of the season and first of the postseason. Kupp finished the game with eight catches for 69 yards. Kupp is the first Rams rookie in franchise history to catch eight passes in a postseason game.
REPORT CARD VS. FALCONS
--PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus - Jared Goff was 22 of 45 for 259 yards and a touchdown, but he was also sacked three times and never quite got into a rhythm through the air. The Falcons did an excellent job getting pressure on him, forcing some errant throws, and figured out a way to slow down Todd Gurley in the screen game.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus - Todd Gurley ran for 101 yards on 14 carries, but with the Falcons getting an early lead it negated his usage. Ideally, the Rams want to get Gurley 20 carries per game, but the rhythm of the game dictated otherwise and it cost them big time.
--PASS DEFENSE: B - The Rams surrendered only 213 yards and one touchdown through the air while sacking Matt Ryan three times. It wasn't a terrible effort by any means and on another night, with better help from the offense and special teams, it would have been a winning effort.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B - Once the Falcons grabbed an early lead they played keep away from the Rams by pounding the rock 39 times. And while the Rams were mostly up to the challenge by surrendering just 3.2 yards per carry, the sheer amount of attempts enabled the Falcons to control the game clock and ultimately possess the ball for 15 more minutes than the Rams.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: D - It's almost shocking to grade the Rams special teams out so low considering their impact all season, but two costly turnovers in the return game by Pro-Bowl returner Pharoh Cooper led to 10 first-quarter points for the Falcons and, ultimately, completely altered the dynamics of the game. The Rams never recovered.
--COACHING: C - Sean McVay did not have his young team ready to play under the bright lights of the playoffs, and that resulted in some tense play by the offense and a couple of costly turnovers by the special teams. He might have gotten away too early from his game plan as a result, resulting in 45 pass attempts to just 16 rushing attempts. That is not who the Rams are. But the Falcons forced them to play that game.