DETROIT — It wasn’t easy getting there, but the Los Angeles Rams are the 2018 NFC West Champions.
The Rams defeated the Lions, 30-16 on Sunday, becoming back-to-back division champions for the first time since 1978 and 1979.
At 11-1, Los Angeles is the top seed in the NFC with just a quarter of the season remaining. At this point, if the Rams win out, they will have home field advantage throughout the postseason.
Sunday’s game wasn’t as high scoring as many of Los Angeles’ contests this year, but the Rams nevertheless appeared to have control throughout the matchup — mainly because of a strong defensive performance. The Lions managed only 108 yards of offense and a field goal in the first half, allowing the Rams to get out to a 13-3 lead.
The Rams got on the board first late in the first quarter. Running back Todd Gurley took a carry 15 yards to the left and then moved a screen to the left 19 yards to put L.A. at the Detroit 12. While the drive stalled from there, kicker Greg Zuerlein nailed a 24-yard field goal to give the Rams a 3-0 lead.
The Lions scored their only points of the first half as a response, with Matt Prater putting a 28-yard field goal through the uprights. But it was only three in large part because of outside linebacker Dante Fowler, who had a sack and a tackle for loss on the possession.
Quarterback Jared Goff then threw his seventh interception of the season — and first since Week 9 — on a deep pass intended for wideout Brandin Cooks. But Los Angeles’ defense came through, forcing a three-and-out.
That’s when the Rams’ offense scored its first touchdown of the day, with a 12-play, 71-yard drive ending with a seven-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Woods. The USC product got some separation on a crossing route from left to right, and Goff hit the wideout for the score to give L.A. a 10-3 lead.
After forcing another three-and-out with a 10-yard sack by Cory Littleton on third down, Los Angeles added three more points to its lead by quickly getting down the field with a pair of completions to wide receiver Brandin Cooks that put him over 1,000 yards receiving in 2018.
While the drive stalled, Zuerlein nailed a 47-yard field goal to put L.A. up 13-3 at halftime.
Los Angeles’ defense forced a three-and-out to begin the second half, but Goff committed his second giveaway of the game when he was sacked on 1st-and-10 at the L.A. 49. Defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison brought down Goff, caused the fumble, and recovered the loose ball to give Detroit an extra possession.
The Lions, however, could only manage a field goal out of the takeaway, making the score 13-6, Rams.
On the ensuing kickoff, Detroit attempted to steal a possession with a surprise onside attempt but the ball did not go 10 yards. Though L.A. started with the ball at the opponent 38, the offense was unable to get a first down and had to settle for a Zuerlein 48-yard field goal to get the lead back up to 10 at 16-6.
But the Lions responded well, putting together a quick six-play, 75-yard drive to further cut into the Rams’ lead. Stafford connected with tight end Levine Toilolo for a 39-yard gain down the middle to put Detroit in scoring position. And then the Lions ran a creative play with a screen to an eligible tackle on the left side of the field. Los Angeles had no defenders in the way for starting left tackle Taylor Decker to get in for an 11-yard touchdown to make the score 16-13, Rams.
Los Angeles started off its next possession well, but then went backwards by taking a delay of game. Then on 3rd-and-15, Goff was sacked for a 10-yard loss by outside linebacker Eli Harold, forcing the visitors to punt.
Starting with the ball at their own 20, the Lions quickly gained 24 yards when running back LeGarrette Blount bounced a run to the left to start the possession. But the league’s sack leader, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, made sure the drive didn’t last too long, putting Stafford on his back with a second-down sack at the Lions’ 41. Detroit’s third-down screen was well short of the marker, and the Lions punted — downing the kick at the L.A. 16.
At that point, the Rams’ offense continued to look out of sync, with Goff firing three consecutive incompletions for a three-and-out.
But again, Donald came up with a big-time play — this one his third strip-sack in the last two games. On 1st-and-10 from the Detroit 42, Donald broke through the line to bring down Stafford for a 13-yard loss with the ball coming out in the process. Outside linebacker Samson Ebukam was once again “Johnny on the Spot,” recovering the fumble at Detroit’s 24 to give L.A. a key extra possession.
The Rams took full advantage of the situation, with Gurley taking in a 13-yard run to the right to once again extend Los Angeles’ lead to 10 points at 23-13.
While the visitors’ defense put Detroit in a 3rd-and-8 at its own 27, a defensive pass interference foul gave the home team 48 yards down to the Los Angeles 25. While the Lions were able to gain another first down, a Stafford pass to the back of the end zone on 3rd-and-12 from the L.A. 17 was incomplete. Prater’s 35-yard field goal attempt was good, cutting Los Angeles’ lead to 23-16.
With three timeouts remaining — plus the two-minute warning — and 2:57 left on the clock, Detroit elected to attempt an onside kick. But safety Blake Countess easily fielded the onside kick at the home team’s 45.
After a two-yard run by Woods, and a five-yard run by Gurley, the running back had an opportunity to easily get the ball in the box on 3rd-and-3 from the Detroit 38, but instead elected to run sideways at the two-yard line to force the Lions to take their final remaining timeout after a 36-yard gain.
That run essentially sealed the deal for L.A. to become back-to-back NFC West Champions, but Gurley was able to add a two-yard touchdown for good measure a play later — giving Los Angeles a 30-16 lead with 1:54 left on the clock.
While the Lions were able to drive down the field, cornerback Troy Hill caught an interception in the end zone to seal the deal with 12 seconds left on the clock. After a kneel down by Goff, the L.A. Rams were officially NFC West Champions.
Now at 11-1, Los Angeles will be on the road next week to play Chicago.