How NFL laughingstock became the best story in the league

The Rams used to be known as the Greatest Show on Turf. Now, just call them the Best Script in Hollywood.

With a come-from-behind, 27-23 victory over the Titans in Nashville, the Rams moved to 11-4 and clinched the NFC West for the first time since 2003.

How unlikely was this season? Let’s remember: The Rams had gone 13 seasons without a winning record, and last year, in their return to Los Angeles from St. Louis, they fired coach Jeff Fisher in the middle of a 4-12 campaign. Then they hired Sean McVay, then 30, now 31 and the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, to try to do what Scott Linehan, Steve Spagnuolo and Fisher, who was in the stadium on Sunday, had failed to do.

The Rams handed McVay keys that included third-year running back Todd Gurley and sophomore quarterback Jared Goff, but also bought him a free-agent left tackle in Andrew Whitworth, who recently turned 36. They also brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who at 70 is only 16 years younger than McVay’s grandfather, 1970s-era Giants coach John McVay.

It all has worked out spectacularly for a Rams team that’s 7-1 on the road, plus has a win in London in a “home” game, and has traveled the most miles of any team in the NFL. Thanks in large part to Gurley — who may have clinched the MVP award Sunday by becoming the first player since Herschel Walker in 1985 to roll up 100 yards rushing and 150 yards receiving in the same game — the Rams have gone from the lowest-scoring team in the league (224 points in 216) to the highest-scoring (465, pending the Eagles’ game Monday). And their point differential has swung an insane 340 points, from minus-170 in 2016 to plus-170 now.

“Can’t say enough about the resolve, the mental toughness that you guys continue to display week in and week out,” McVay told his players in the locker room right after the game. “So happy, so proud of you guys to find a way to win a division. You guys deserve that. That’s one step.”

The Rams finish up at home with the 49ers next week. If they can’t catch either the Eagles or Vikings for one of the NFC first-round byes, they will open the Los Angeles Coliseum in two weeks for the first NFL playoff game that city has seen since the Rams beat the Cowboys 20-0 on Jan. 4, 1986. At this moment, their opponent would be the Falcons, last season’s NFC champions. That game would be no gimme, but if they can get past that, the Rams would be a team neither Philadelphia nor Minnesota would want to see coming to their town for the Divisional Round.

Review Screw 2?

Last week, when Jesse James’ touchdown in Pittsburgh was overturned because he didn’t “survive the ground,” FOX’s Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino, two former NFL officiating chiefs, defended the decision made by Alberto Riveron. The Patriots went on to beat the Steelers on an interception a few plays later.

On Sunday, the Patriots defeated the Bills, 37-16, thanks in part to the reversal of an apparent touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor to Kelvin Benjamin that would have given Buffalo the lead just before halftime.

Benjamin grabbed the ball with his right hand, and as he was pulling it back into his body appeared to get one foot inbounds and drag the second foot, creating a visible skid line on the turf. The two officials nearest the play consulted and declared the play a touchdown. After a lengthy review, referee Craig Wrolstad announced the reversal, and the Bills kicked a field goal to make it 13-13.

This time, Pereira wasn’t on board. Tweeting from the Cowboys-Seahawks game, he wrote, “Don’t see how the Buffalo TD was overturned. Not clear and obvious the toe didn’t drag. There is a line behind the toe when he drags it. Am I missing something?” Later, he added, “Nothing more irritating to an official than to make a great call and then someone in a suit in an office in New York incorrectly reverses it. It is more and more obvious that there isn’t a standard for staying with the call on the field.”

The NFL released a statement in which Riveron claimed Benjamin did not have control until his left foot was off the ground, but Blandino wasn’t buying that.

“In New England, the issue is whether Benjamin had control with the left foot down,” he tweeted. “Did not see anything clear & obvious to the contrary.”

Replay is a huge mess, and it’s even more damaging for the league if these calls fuel a perception, among fans and even players, that the Patriots are always getting the benefit.

With the Bills now on the brink of elimination, DE Jerry Hughes shouted on his way to the locker room, according to ESPN, “Somebody in Boston got the refs on the payroll.”

RB LeSean McCoy said, “the [officials] always seem to get it right for the Patriots but that’s not why we lost. It sure would have helped out in the game … It’s just crazy because we put so much into it, to get robbed like that. Come on, that was a touchdown.”

Play of the Day

The Panthers trailed the Buccaneers 19-15 with 39 seconds to go and had a first-and-goal at the 2. Cam Newton fumbled a high shotgun snap, but picked up the ball with his momentum going forward, put his head down and dove through a mass of bodies and over the goal line for the touchdown that gave the Panthers a 22-19 victory, put them in the playoffs and kept their division title hopes alive. Newton then lit an imaginary candle on the ball, in honor of his son’s birthday, walked the ball to the stands and handed it to a young fan.

Post Patterns

With their 20-3 loss to the Bears at Soldier Field, the 0-15 Browns have one more shot, next week at Pittsburgh, to try to avoid becoming the third team in the Super Bowl era to lose every game (2008 Lions, 0-16; 1976 Buccaneers, 0-14). They did clinch the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft; now we’ll see if Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen take evasive measures. … Jimmy Garoppolo is 4-0 as a starter with the 49ers and 6-0 in his career including two Patriots starts in place of a suspended Tom Brady in 2016. … The Jaguars already had clinched their first division title since 1999 (then known as the AFC Central, with Tom Coughlin as coach) by virtue of the Titans’ loss to the Rams. Even so, the 44-33 loss in which Blake Bortles threw his first pick-six of the season (and 12th of his career) raises some red flags about this Jacksonville team.

Three Stars

1. Todd Gurley, Rams RB
Gurley caught 10 passes for 158 yards and two TDs and added 118 rushing yards on 22 carries to lead the Rams to a division-clinching, 27-23 victory at Tennessee.

2. Dion Lewis, Patriots RB
Lewis rushed for 129 yards and a TD on 24 carries, and reeled in five passes for 24 yards and another score in the Patriots’ 37-16 win over the Bills in Foxborough.

3. Drew Brees, Saints QB
Brees threw for 239 yards and a TD in a crucial 23-13 home win over the Falcons. Gets nod for becoming third QB to reach 70,000 career yards, and the fastest to do it.

Todd Gurley, Dion Lewis and Drew BreesGetty Images (3)

He said what?

“Somebody in Boston got the refs on the payroll. Y’all paying them big money out here. Still ain’t going to win, though.” — Bills DE Jerry Hughes, as he entered the locker room, per ESPN. Hughes likely was referring to a video reversal of a Kelvin Benjamin touchdown that would have given the Bills the lead at the half. Instead, the Patriots rolled from a 13-all tie to a 37-16 win.

Fantasy Insanity

  • Todd Gurley’s dominance of all things fantasy continued with a second-straight 40-plus PPR outing — also his fourth straight over 20. Following last week’s four-TD effort, he went for 118 yards on the ground and 158 in the air with 10 catches, including a pair of receiving scores (49.6 PPR points).
  • Samaje Perine surprisingly was active, after being downgraded to questionable during the week with a groin problem. Normally, midweek downgrades are a bad sign. Normally, groin problems are troublesome for running backs. Normally, Perine would be limited or get a lighter workload. All of that made Kapri Bibbs a reasonable choice despite Perine’s availability. Instead, Perine 20 had touches to Bibbs’ nine, making neither worthwhile from a fantasy perspective.
  • In a related story, Joe Mixon (concussion) returned for the Bengals, rendering Giovani Bernard a risky play. Concussions aren’t as worrisome as groins, so Mixon was safer. Mixon injured his ankle in the first quarter, and Bernard racked up 168 total yards on seven catches and a score (29.8 PPR points).

Drew Loftis