Look, the formula couldn't have been simpler. At 6-6, entering the fourth quarter of the regular season, New England first needed to run the table in order to give themselves a legitimate chance of making the playoffs.
That meant beating an 8-4 Rams team that presented significant matchup challenges on both sides of the football. On their turf. With only a couple days preparation.
Simple concept? Sure, but difficult reality.
"We didn't play a good style or brand of football tonight and they did," QB Cam Newton remarked afterward. "They made more plays than us, so, it led to them winning."
"Certainly, the Rams were the better team tonight. They deserved [the win]," head coach Bill Belichick concurred. "They did a good job in all areas. We weren't good enough to stay with them. They're a good football team that played well… Just wasn't our night tonight."
On the game's opening drive, a 25-yard pass completion, a five-yard penalty by New England, and a 35-yard run, and just like that, L.A. was at the Patriots' 10-yard line. It took the Rams all four downs to get into the end zone, but score they did when QB Jared Goff leapt over his offensive line on 4th-and-goal from inside the 1.
The Patriots could respond only with a three-and-out, giving Goff and the Rams' O the ball back about 90 seconds later. Los Angeles showed an ability to run the ball almost at will early on in the game, but had to settle for a Matt Gay field goal on their second possession to take a quick 10-0 lead.
Immediately thereafter, the Rams batted a third-down Newton pass at the line of scrimmage, forcing a second three-and-out punt in as many Patriot drives. Yet, rookie DB Myles Bryant gave New England the ball back well inside Rams territory with a wonderful interception of a contested Goff pass near the end of the first quarter.
Just a couple plays later, though, LB Kenny Young picked off Newton and raced 79 yards for a touchdown. Gay's extra point made it 17-0 in the early second quarter.
"We knew exactly what they were going to do [defensively]. We just have to be better, and it starts with me, personally," added Newton. "Just have to make more plays. That's what it comes down to."
New England ran the ball strong and effectively on the next series, setting themselves up with a goal-to-go opportunity. Faced with a 4th-and-goal from the 2, Newton kept the ball on an option and was stuffed for a loss, turning the ball over on downs.
The Patriots finally managed to force a Rams punt, and eventually, Nick Folk drilled a short field goal to chip away at L.A.'s lead just before halftime. Yet, history was on the Rams' side. With Sean McVay as their head coach, L.A. was 33-0 when leading at halftime.
New England couldn't capitalize on having first possession in the second half. An Aaron Donald sack of Newton had a lot to do with that.
As they did for much of the first half, the Rams handed off to rookie RB Cam Akers, who established a career best 134 yards rushing after just two-plus quarters of play. He'd add to that total during a clock-killing third-quarter drive that ate up nearly 10 minutes of game clock and resulted in a Goff-to-Cooper Kupp touchdown pass. Akers would finish with 171 yards on the ground.
"We just need to play good football. Bottom line," stated defensive lineman and co-captain Lawrence Guy. "If you look at the first series [of the game] and the first series of the second half, we just had some bad plays. All we can do is take that and learn from our mistakes and continue to fight through. It's a long season ahead still, doesn't matter if there are three games left."
Down 24-3, and even before then, the Patriots could do little offensively against a stout Rams defense. When New England took over midway through the fourth quarter following a Rams punt, backup Jarrett Stidham took over at QB. Yet, even with extremely favorable field position, New England was compelled to go for it on 4th-and-4 from the L.A. 16 and failed to convert.
Over four quarters, New England QBs were sacked a total of six combined times, a result of relentless pressure from Donald, Michael Brockers, and the rest of L.A.'s formidable defensive front.
The Patriots actually made a handful of trips to the Rams' red zone Thursday night, but came away empty, with the exception of Folk's field goal. Quite a departure from the 45-0 drubbing the Patriots gave the L.A. Chargers in this same building only a few days earlier.
With just three games left in 2020, the Patriots now have seven losses, the most for them since 2002. Ultimately, any hopes New England may have harbored of muscling its way into the playoffs suffered a serious blow at the hands of the Rams Thursday.
"It's harder," safety and co-captain Devin McCourty acknowledged in post-game comments to the media, "but that's the goal for every team. Until you're eliminated, that continues to be the goal. So, we'll continue to fight to win every game left on our schedule, no matter what happens. We have three games to play football. You can't take that for granted."
"I don't look at records or playoffs," Guy maintained. "I look at it as a game. We have a game next week. We had a game today. We didn't do what we've got to do to win this game, but we still have a game coming up. We still have to prepare for that game and play our butts off.
"We ain't a bunch of quitters. It doesn't matter what the record is, what the outcome is. We're going to go out and play some football. We're going to continue to fight, regardless of what happens at the end of the season…. It's not over yet."