LOS ANGELES -- Jared Goff had the football in his hands, along with what was left of the Dallas Cowboys' postseason dreams -- and cold-hearted deceit on his brain. The Los Angeles Rams' slower-than-the-405-at-rush-hour quarterback needed seven yards to close out a divisional playoff victory at the Coliseum on Saturday night, and to the surprise of 77,187 fans, millions of television viewers and 11 Dallas defenders, he was determined to get those yards with his legs.
After taking a third-and-7 snap from his own 28 with two minutes remaining and faking a handoff to halfback C.J. Anderson, Goff rolled to his right and took a cursory glance at tight end Tyler Higbee, who was being smothered by Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee in man-to-man coverage near the Rams' sideline. At that moment Goff, on a night two L.A. running backs had already eclipsed 100 rushing yards, knew *he *would have to carry the load on the play that could secure a 30-22 triumph and send the Rams into next Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
"I didn't have any other option," Goff told me afterward. "It was a pass play, but they were in man coverage, and you can't let the clock stop. So, if it's not wide open, you've gotta run it."
Goff rambled forward and closed in on the first-down stick, with only Lee to beat, and for a split second his head coach, Sean McVay, feared an unfavorable outcome. As McVay explained later while prancing around the locker room, "I thought maybe he was gonna (come up short and) run out of bounds."
In actuality Goff -- like the Rams' bench area, the Coliseum stands and the City of Angels at large -- was about to get turnt.
Shortly before reaching the sideline, Goff planted his foot and spun inside of Lee, finally falling forward for an 11-yard gain that essentially clinched the victory and made him the first Rams quarterback to reach the NFC title game since Hall of Famer Kurt Warner 18 years earlier.
"He's a little more nimble than people give him credit for," McVay said of Goff. "Give it up for Jared Vick."
While this may be the only time in his entire career that Goff, even sarcastically, is compared to perhaps the most feared running quarterback in modern NFL history, this was a victory that provoked elation and hyperbole.
For McVay, who spent the past two weeks rolling his eyes at jokes suggesting that anyone he's ever met can land an NFL head coaching job, there was nothing subtle about the Rams' first triumph over a team with a winning record since their dizzying 54-51 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs nearly two months earlier -- and the first career playoff win for the 32-year-old wunderkind.
A little more than a year ago, after McVay had guided the Rams to a shocking playoff appearance in his first season, they put forth an underwhelming performance in a 26-13 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons at the Coliseum -- a game which McVay later acknowledged to friends had seemed "a little big" for his young team.
This time, the second-seeded Rams -- since energized by an influx of battle-tested veterans -- were grounded, in more than one sense of the word. Before churning out 273 rushing yards against the NFC East champion Cowboys, who'd limited the Seahawks' impressive power-running attack to 73 yards in a 24-22 first-round playoff victory, the NFC West champion Rams were riled up by McVay's stirring pregame speech, during which the coach implored his players, "Let's write the f----- story ourselves. This is Chapter 17, and we're writing our own story."
Saturday's story featured a pair of protagonists -- one likely, and one whose mere presence on the field would have seemed implausible a month ago. When star halfback Todd Gurley suffered a left knee injury during the Rams' 30-23 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles at the Coliseum on Dec. 16, a game that would mark his final regular-season appearance, L.A. was suddenly thin at the position, as backup Malcolm Brown had been placed on injured reserve the previous week after undergoing a procedure to reset his clavicle.
"When Gurley got hurt, we wanted to find the best running back available that has played in meaningful games," McVay recalled Saturday. "We found a guy who has stepped up in every important game he has ever played."
That guy, C.J. Anderson, was the offensive star of the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl 50 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Released by the Broncos last April, Anderson signed with Carolina, but after nine games of limited action (24 carries, 104 yards) as Christian McCaffrey's backup, he was waived on Nov. 12. He signed with the Oakland Raiders in early December, was inactive during his only game with the Silver and Black and was cut a week later, on Dec. 11.
At that point Anderson, 27, had reason to question his football-playing future. On Monday, Dec. 17, he was at his Charlotte home helping to load boxes onto a moving van headed for his new residence in Katy, Texas, when he got a call from the Rams saying they wanted to sign him. "Yeah, I was pretty surprised," Anderson admitted.
After flying to Houston to help complete the move, Anderson showed up in Southern California -- and revitalized both his career and the Rams' offense. In running for a combined 299 yards in the Rams' final two regular season games, victories over NFC West also-rans Arizona and San Francisco, Anderson proved his worth. On Saturday, he kept it rolling against one of the league's top defenses, carrying 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns -- with a long run of 15 yards.
"I'm just old and fat, man," Anderson said, smiling, as he sat at his locker after the game. Asked if he thought the football world had expected his re-emergence, Anderson replied, "They definitely forgot. But it's been the same game since 2013. It's not flashy. It's not great. There aren't a lot of big runs. It's just moving the chains."
Said Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer: "He runs old school, the way you're supposed to run: Lower your pads, charge ahead, and if they try to arm-tackle you, run right through the arm tackle."
While Anderson's vision, patience and physicality after contact singed the Dallas defense, Gurley (16 carries, 115 yards) flashed his feature-back credentials at key moments, most notably during a 35-yard touchdown run that put the Rams up 20-7 with 3:27 left in the first half.
"When Todd sprang it," Anderson said, "it was like the defense said, 'Oh, s---. We can't stop both of them.'"
Said Goff: "We ran the hell out of the ball. C.J.'s smart, tough and fits our offense well. Todd's the best back in the league; he's just so explosive and does so many great things, and C.J. is the perfect complement. For the first time in awhile, you see Todd getting his rest and busting off these long runs, because he's fresh."
When Goff wasn't handing off to Gurley or Anderson -- his fellow Cal alum, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2013 -- he was efficiently running McVay's offense, completing 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards, with no turnovers or sacks.
On Saturday, Cooper caught six passes for 65 yards, including the 29-yard touchdown reception that gave Dallas a 7-3 lead with 6:03 left in the first quarter, a play on which he appeared to beat L.A. free safety Lamarcus Joyner.
When I spoke with him at his locker after the game, Peters said, "Tell Coop I thought he knew us. He said he played us two times a year... that's 12 times he played against me and (Talib). I think he got strapped tonight. He had that TD, but he didn't do s---. (While incurring the personal foul) I choked him out. He couldn't do nothin'. He was crying for his mama. That's how he is. That's why the Raiders got rid of him."
Then Peters smiled and said, "I'm just playin'."
This much is certain: On Saturday, Peters and the Rams' other defenders were playing for keeps. L.A. limited star halfback Ezekiel Elliott, the 2018 regular-season rushing champion and the focal point of the Dallas attack, to 47 yards on 20 carries, ending a Cowboys drive by stuffing him for no gain on a fourth-and-1 attempt from the Rams' 35 on the first play of the fourth quarter. Veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had his best game in a Rams uniform, joining fellow offseason acquisitions Talib and Peters in rising to the moment.
The Rams' negation of Elliott left third-year quarterback Dak Prescott (20 of 32, 266 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) to do the heavy lifting, as he attempted to rally Dallas back from deficits of 23-7 and 30-15. When Prescott lunged into the end zone to cut the Rams' lead to eight with 2:11 remaining, the Cowboys -- with three timeouts and the two-minute warning -- knew they needed a defensive stop to have a shot at tying the game.
Short runs by Gurley and Anderson set up the third-and-7 play, at which point Goff added some unexpected oomph to the potent Rams rushing attack. Already, Gurley and Anderson had become the fourth set of teammates with 100-yard rushing performances in the same game in the last 30 postseasons, a list that also includes the Falcons' Warrick Dunn and Michael (Don't Call Me Jared) Vick in 2004.
After Goff's 11-yard run, veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who had a monster game, told the quarterback, "Look at you, you little athlete."
"We're excited," Goff said as he mingled outside the Coliseum with friends and family members about an hour after eliminating the Cowboys, his thoughts already focused on the biggest game of his young career. "Either way, whether we're here (if the Eagles win) or in New Orleans (if the Saints win), we're gonna have to do a lot better than we did last time."
If Goff and his teammates want the final chapter of their story to include a trip to Super Bowl LIII, they don't have any other option.