SEATTLE • We’ve seen this one before. Rams fight hard, hang in game, then make a couple of costly mistakes that prove to be the difference.
“The difference between 10-6 and 6-10 is a couple plays in four ballgames out of 16,” quarterback Shaun Hill said. “And that’s a fact. That’s every year in the NFL.”
The Rams seem to have perfected the art of NOT making those plays. A 20-6 season-ending loss Sunday to Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champion, was merely the latest example.
“Well, we gave it our best shot, problem is that we didn’t finish,” coach Jeff Fisher said afterward, in what qualified as words we’ve heard before.
After taking an early 6-0 lead, the Rams couldn’t add to that point total even though they got as close as the Seattle half-yard line in the fourth quarter.
A busted coverage by — surprise! — cornerback Janoris Jenkins led to the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
That followed a play in which quarterback Shaun Hill tried to throw the ball into the ground for an incompletion but instead threw an interception. You know it’s not your day when a glorified spike ends up as a turnover.
Later, what looked like a completion to tight end Lance Kendricks became a fluky interception that was returned 49 yards for a victory-clinching touchdown by Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin.
Trailing 20-6 after that “pick 6,” the last gasp came with 6 minutes to play when running back Benny Cunningham, lunging for the end zone and a TD, had the ball slapped away by safety Earl Thomas and out of the end zone. The result was a touchback, with Seattle taking over at its 20.
“For a second, I actually thought I was in the end zone,” said Cunningham, who had taken a short pass from Hill at the 6. “And then I saw the ref (signal) touchback. It’s a tough break. I really feel like I let the team down. In a situation like that, you’ve really got to take care of the ball.”
It was merely the last of a handful of game-deciding plays that went against the Rams, sending them into the offseason at 6-10, their worst record since Fisher took over as coach in 2012.
Seattle, winners of six in a row and nine of its last 10, finished 12-4 to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage. It was the 10th consecutive loss for the Rams at what is now known as CenturyLink Field.
On the strength of a pair of Greg Zuerlein fields goals, the Rams took a 6-0 lead into the locker room at halftime even though they were outgained 189 yards to 66. Two takeaways helped keep Seattle off the scoreboard, one on rookie cornerback Marcus Roberson’s first career interception and the other on a Marshawn Lynch fumble that was recovered by safety T.J. McDonald.
Seattle managed a couple of field goals to take the game into the fourth quarter tied at 6-all. And then, as frequently happens to the Rams, stuff happened. Bad stuff.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Rams tried to set up a screen pass to Tre Mason on second and 19 from the Seattle 34. But it was well-covered and Hill tried to throw the ball into the ground for an incompletion.
Alas, Seattle defensive tackle Jordan Hill managed to grab the football before it hit the ground.
When asked if his quarterback could’ve done anything differently on the play, Fisher answered with a touch of sarcasm: “Yes. He should’ve thrown that ball into the ground. ... You try and throw it to the feet of the back. That’s what you try and do. He just didn’t make the play.”
The last thing Shaun Hill expected was to see a 303-pound lineman get low to the groud and come up with the ball.
“I was surprised to see him make the play, yeah,” Hill said. “It was heck of a play by him. You’ve got to get the ball close to the running back’s feet. I can’t get it directly down, or else you get an intentional grounding penalty.”
Then came the Jenkins coverage bust, which resulted in a freebie for the other team; there have been a lot of those this season by the Rams’ secondary. The result was an uncontested 31-yard pass play to wide receiver Kevin Norwood to the St. Louis 9.
Jenkins initially was lined up over Norwood on the outside, but Jenkins totally ignored him after the snap, committing inside in the direction of slot receiver Doug Baldwin. That left Norwood wide open.
Fisher said he had no idea what Jenkins was doing on the play.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it,” Fisher said. “He should’ve been playing ‘thirds’ — outside thirds. (Baldwin) had an inside seam route running. That’s why he probably leaned towards the seam, and left the flat route out there. It was a good play by them.”
And a bad play by Jenkins, who had cleared out his locker stall and was unavailable to comment.
On the next play, Lynch scored untouched on a 9-yard rush up the middle for a 13-6 Seattle lead.
The backbreaker came on the Rams’ next possession when Hill threw what looked like a completion over the middle to Kendricks. But before Kendricks could get control of the ball it was poked out by linebacker Bobby Wagner, and grabbed in the air by Irvin for the interception.
“I caught the ball and I tried to tuck it,” Kendricks said. “As soon as I was pulling it down to tuck it, (Wagner’s) arm came around and hit the ball out. I did what I could. I was blind to it.
“The ball bounced right into his hands. I don’t know what to say. It might happen one out of a hundred times.”
Be that as it may, plays like that symbolize another lost season of Rams football.
“Yeah, in a sense,” Kendricks said. “Just like Benny’s play.”
Or just like the dozen or so others that spelled the difference between 10-6 and 6-10 for the 2014 Rams.