THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Before Jared Goff led the Los Angeles Rams into the NFL playoffs last year, his only adult experience in a postseason football game was at the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl.
Leading California past Air Force on a cold Tuesday afternoon in Fort Worth is a little bit different than taking on the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in prime time in your team's first postseason game in 13 years. Most of the Rams had no NFL playoff experience, and Goff knows it showed in their 26-13 loss.
"It was a game that I would have liked to play better," said Goff, who went 24 of 45 for 259 yards and one TD against Atlanta. "We would have all liked to play better. Ended not the way we would have liked it to. Hopefully we can use some of those experiences as a positive and move forward with them. ... That's always big when you can get in those situations and get in those moments and feel it. Whether it ends up good or bad, just being able to experience it and feel it is important."
Goff is determined to show everything he learned from that loss when the current Rams (13-3) begin another postseason run after their bye week.
The Rams will host Chicago, Seattle or Dallas on Jan. 12, when the franchise attempts to advance to its first NFC championship game since the 2001 campaign — also the season of the Rams' last Super Bowl appearance.
Goff grew into a bona fide Pro Bowl quarterback this season, ranking fourth in the league with 4,688 yards passing and 32 TD passes. The Rams also evolved as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, proving last season's success was no fluke while also realizing they need January success to back up their growth.
That loss to the Falcons at the Coliseum has been cited all season as a valuable lesson for a group that had never been on such a stage. According to coach Sean McVay, it was also a wake-up call for a coaching staff that now realizes it must grind even harder to advance deep in the postseason.
"I think we were all disappointed with the result, with what an abrupt ending it was to such a great season last year," McVay said. "Such a fun season."
Those 2017 Rams were a pleasant shock, with the arrival of McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips immediately galvanizing a long-struggling team to a seven-game improvement on 2016. The current Rams didn't sneak up on anybody, yet they still earned two more victories to post this team's best record since 2001.
And because the football world knew the Rams were good, they featured repeatedly in high-pressure matchups with national exposure. Three of the Rams' final six games alone were in prime time — and while they went 1-2 in those games, Goff believes it will all pay off when the Rams begin their toughest work next week.
"I think just understanding the opportunity is definitely part of it," the third-year quarterback said. "Just having more big-game experience, being on prime time a handful of times this year and then having that playoff game last year and having games that are extremely meaningful late in the season. I think that all carries over into the playoffs and into that mentality that you have to have throughout the week."
The Rams kept a mellow mentality while they waited for the NFC to sort out their opponent. They held two light practices, but otherwise used the bye week to heal from the accumulated wear of the regular season before watching the weekend's playoff games from their couches.
"I'd be watching it whether we were in or not," McVay said with a grin.
A playoff bye is another new experience for many Rams, including McVay, who never had that postseason week off in eight years as an NFL assistant. McVay leaned on Phillips and his other veteran assistants to formulate a plan for their time off.
"It certainly is something that you appreciate," McVay said. "It's a good balance of letting the players get away, and the coaches as well, but you're also staying sharp, not getting too far removed from it where you let the rust set in."
The Rams gathered no rust in December because they couldn't let up down the stretch. The Bears pushed them for the No. 2 seed in the NFC until the final game of the regular season, forcing every starter except injured Todd Gurley and safety Lamarcus Joyner to play in the finale even though the Rams wrapped up their division four weeks earlier.
The past month was encouraging for the defense, which had struggled to match the offense's performance earlier in the season. Los Angeles held three of its final five opponents — including Chicago, a potential playoff foe — to fewer than 17 points, showing tenacity and adaptability even in its opponents' higher-scoring performances.
The Rams added a handful of playoff-tested veterans in the offseason, including Super Bowl champion Aqib Talib. If anybody didn't get it last season, the veteran cornerback can tell his teammates all about the importance of meeting the playoff challenge.
"Football cranks up," Talib said. "Gets a little bit faster. You've got to make less mistakes. It's the playoffs, man, so it doesn't matter if it's your first time, second time. It doesn't really matter. Everything is going to go a little faster and your margin of error has got to be that much better."