Ultimately, the Rams' upset bid of the Detroit Lions came down to this: a third-down and five play with 2:03 on the clock, just outside the red zone, tied up 20-all. Get the first down, and the Rams can control the clock and have the last shot at putting points on the board. But before we consider what the Rams did on that play, we have to consider everything that brought them to this point, standing on the brink of notching an improbable win against a playoff team.
We have to consider a banged-up offensive line that lost Scott Wells (foot) and Rodger Saffold (head/neck) after finally being able to four of its ideal starting five on the field. We have to consider Sam Bradford's performance, who had to keep a cool head after taking a series of hits in the second half from an amped up Lions defense. We have to consider Brandon Gibson's redemptive performance after taking a boneheaded penalty in the first half. And we have to consider a series of shots to the gut delivered by the Rams defense to the Lions and their crowd.
Jeff Fisher made a statement to his defense from the start, putting them on the field to open the game against Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Naturally, Stafford put the offense in gear and motored them down the field, mixing runs and passes as they worked into goal-to-go territory. But Janoris Jenkins snuffed the drive with a brilliant little gamble, abandoning his trail position to step in front of a Stafford pass at the goal line, and claim it as his own.
Jenkins' pick was the first of three first-half interceptions that the Rams suckered Stafford into throwing. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Cortland Finnegan provided the other two, with Finnegan running his in for a go-ahead touchdown that put the Rams in control of the game at halftime.
For most of the first half, a healthy offensive line featuring Robert Turner at left guard was able to fend off the Lions' vaunted front four and give Sam Bradford plenty of time to find receivers downfield. Bradford showed poise and efficiency, keying long point-scoring drives of 8 and 10 plays, but was unable to connect with rookie Chris Givens on his deepest strike of the day, and unable to get the Rams into the end zone.
Nevertheless, this was a game being patiently managed into a viable upset bid. But in the second half, things started to go haywire.
First, the Rams offense took the field without their starting center. Scott Wells was on the sideline with some sort of foot injury, putting Turner in the center spot and powerful-but-raw rookie Rokevious Watkins in at left guard. I'm a fan of Watkins, but the dropoff in pass protection against veteran DT Corey Williams was immediate and steep. Twice, Williams single-handedly blew up Bradford's protection to deliver a big hit, forcing a fumble on one that the Rams were lucky to recover.
Second, Matthew Stafford made a simple adjustment - he stopped throwing the ball to the men in white jerseys. The Lions offense sputtered for several drives, but managed to tie the game on a short field goal drive set up by a brilliant punt return by Stefan Logan.
Danny Amendola returned the favor with a nice return of his own, setting up Bradford with a short field. Five plays later, Bradford took a quick step back from under center and launchd a snap throw down the sideline to a streaking Brandon Gibson, who had just enough separation on the Lions' rookie corner to make a brilliant catch in the end zone.
The 20-13 lead was the Rams' third of the game, and the biggest. However, it was also the shortest-lives, and it came at a high cost, as Rodger Saffold collapsed mid-block after taking an inadvertent shot to the crown of his helmet. Stafford came roaring back to answer with a touchdown drive of his own, taking just five plays and 2:26 off the game clock.
Sam Bradford got the ball back with an improbable mission: bleed the remaining time off the clock with a wheezing offense that was now starting two of the game's pariahs in Barry Richardson and Wayne Hunter at tackles, a career backup at center, and a rookie beyond his depth at guard.
Amazingly, that's exactly what he did over the next eleven plays and five-plus minutes of game time. With the Lions defense keying on Steven Jackson (as they had all day), Bradford completed four of five passes, each one for a first down, moving the chains and bleeding the clock and sucking the life out of the Ford Field dome.
One more completion, one more pass on a third and five, and the Lions would be unable to stop the clock, and would no longer be in control of their fate. The Rams would have consummated their upset bid and given Jeff Fisher a rare commodity as St Louis coach - a first-game win. The last coach to do that in St Louis, Scott Linehan, now stood across the sideline hoping to get his offense on the field one last time.
As we know from the game's outcome, Bradford couldn't complete that pass. Greg Zuerlein was brought onto the field to give the Rams one last lead, but the Lions cruelly took it - and the rest of the clock - away.
Instead of a win, we got the wrong end of a thrilling game. We got 58 minutes of excitement followed by a two-minute flashback of the last five years of futility. We got a loss that almost, but not quite, feels like a victory.
Almost, but not quite.