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Overachieving Rams head into a brighter future after discouraging one-point playoff loss to Lions

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Rams improved more quickly and won more games than almost anybody expected this season.

That didn't make their one-point road playoff loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday any less painful in the moment.

But once the sting wears off, Matthew Stafford and his teammates will realize the future is a whole lot brighter for the Rams than it looked one year ago.

“Nobody gave us a chance to even be sniffing where we are right now, and (we) gave a really good football team a run for their money,” Stafford said. “Didn’t get it done, but proud of the guys. Proud of their effort from the coaching staff, players, everybody involved in it. It was a fun year, a hell of a year.”

One year after the worst season by a defending Super Bowl champion in NFL history, the Rams started out 3-6. They surged to seven wins in their next eight games to make the playoffs, and they came agonizingly close to beating the third-seeded Lions on the road.

And the Rams were fun again: Los Angeles' offense thrived with Stafford getting the ball to a collection of new and familiar playmakers behind an improved offensive line, while the defense overperformed for coordinator Raheem Morris despite a clear talent gap around Aaron Donald.

Objectively, the Rams couldn't feel much logical disappointment about when and where their season ended. The circumstances in which it happened, however, will create a few what-ifs for coach Sean McVay during the long offseason.

Los Angeles outgained the Lions by nearly 100 yards, but settled for three field goals inside the Detroit 12. McVay and Stafford burned timeouts early in the second half that they desperately needed late in the game to preserve one last chance to score after the Rams' undermanned defense held Detroit to three points in the final 37 minutes.

Many of those mistakes came down to decisions made by McVay, who has spent all season reenergized and refocused on building another winner. Judging by his postgame comments in Detroit, this loss only increased his determination.

“I’m so proud of this football team,” McVay said. "The finality of it ... it doesn’t totally resonate, but man, did I learn a lot and really appreciate this group. They helped me find my way again, and how much I love this and love the people that I’m around.”

A year ago, the Rams made several roster decisions ridding themselves of salary cap woes and giving themselves money to spend in 2024. The future is now here, and the decisions made by general manager Les Snead in the next few months will determine whether the Rams can be a Super Bowl contender immediately.

The Rams had flight delays on their way home from Detroit, so they didn’t make players available to reporters after their team meeting Monday. The future of several key contributors is up in the air, although the Rams also could have more stability than normal, thanks to a crop of contributing rookies and second-year pros headlined by Pro Bowlers Puka Nacua and Kyren Williams.

ANOTHER YEAR

Stafford cleared up any questions about his future immediately after the game, saying he plans to return in 2024 after his Pro Bowl season. Retirement talk swirled around Stafford a year ago, largely because of his injuries, but his offensive line kept him upright and effective nearly all season. Stafford repeatedly proved down the stretch that he’s still one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, and the Rams seem eager to stick with him into his 16th NFL season.

LINE GAINS

Maintaining the quality of Stafford's line will be paramount, and the Rams have decisions to make. They could shop for a left tackle after restricted free agent Alaric Jackson held down the position this season over Joe Noteboom, who could be cut instead of paid $20 million to be a backup next year. Right guard Kevin Dotson is a free agent who might have played his way to a bigger payday than Los Angeles will be willing to provide.

RUSHERS NEEDED

The Rams' biggest roster needs are on defense, and they were obvious against the Lions. Los Angeles struggled to get pressure on Jared Goff, who went 22 for 22 when he wasn't under pressure. Despite solid rookie seasons from Kobie Turner and Byron Young, the Rams struggled all season without the departed Leonard Floyd to provide a pass-rushing counterpoint to Donald. A proven edge-rushing linebacker should be atop their offseason wish list.

ON THE CORNER

The Rams' other big weakness this season was in the secondary, and Detroit capitalized. Ahkello Witherspoon had one of his least impressive games against the Lions, and the Rams' overall lack of speed and game savvy was repeatedly exposed. From top to bottom, the secondary needs a talent infusion.

STAFF DECISIONS

McVay says he'll be back for his eighth season, but he could have yet another year of significant turnover on a coaching staff that's had little continuity in recent years. Respected defensive line coach Eric Henderson already left Monday for a similar job and a likely pay raise at Southern California, while Morris is a popular head coaching candidate with requests from at least five NFL teams for interviews. McVay and Morris have been excellent partners for three seasons, but McVay could be charting another defensive course in 2024.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL