What’s next for one-loss Rams?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Mike Jones

How Mar­cus Peters, left, and Rams team­mates re­act to their first loss will help define their sea­son.

NEW OR­LEANS – Mar­cus Peters could have tried to come up with some kind of ex­cuse. But the Rams cor­ner­back saw no point.

He got beat early, of­ten and late while matched up with Saints wide re­ceiver Michael Thomas. The 72-yard touch­down catch that Thomas hauled in with roughly four min­utes left to play, dust­ing Peters as he sprinted the re­main­ing 45 yards to pay dirt, rep­re­sented the knock­out punch in New Or­leans’ 45-35 vic­tory in Week 9.

The re­sult ended the Rams’ eight-game un­beaten streak and es­tab­lished the Saints as the NFC’s front-run­ner.

Peters was asked for clar­ity on his strug­gles. Had he ex­pected help from a safety on the long touch­down? Was the an­kle in­jury that ham­pered him early in the year still a fac­tor against Thomas, who caught 12 passes for a fran­chise-record 211 yards?

Peters wasn’t in the mood to search for an ex­pla­na­tion.

“(Ex­ple­tive) hap­pens like that in foot­ball. ... I got beat on the play. I can stand up and own it,” he said, an edge in his voice as he fought to con­tain his emo­tions. “I been play­ing (ex­ple­tive) these last cou­ple weeks, and that’s just be­ing hon­est. But me, I’ll just con­tinue to fight. That’s the type of player I am. Who gives a (ex­ple­tive)? You’re go­ing to get beat in foot­ball. You go out there and com­pete to the high­est of your abil­ity, but sh— hap­pens.

“Coach wouldn’t have me out there if I wasn’t healthy. I own up to that,” con­tin­ued Peters, a two-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion and all-pro in 2016. “Like I said, I’ve had a bad few weeks. I know I’m a top (ex­ple­tive) cor­ner in this league and I ain’t been play­ing like that. I put that (loss) on me.”

Peters’ team­mates re­futed his claim that the de­feat fell squarely on his shoul­ders. But like the cor­ner­back, they view the out­come as merely a speed bump rather than some­thing that would de­rail their sea­son.

“Ev­ery­one got to be hum­bled, and to­day was our day,” said run­ning back Todd Gur­ley, whom the Saints lim­ited to 68 rush­ing yards and a touch­down.

De­spite their frus­tra­tion, the Rams un­der­stand that a loss doesn’t have to be dev­as­tat­ing. The de­feat does give the Saints a leg up in the pur­suit of home-field ad­van­tage. But, as Peters said, stuff hap­pens. There’s a rea­son the 1972 Dol­phins’ per­fect cam­paign re­mains the only one of its kind: Per­fec­tion in the NFL is vir­tu­ally unattain­able.

For Los An­ge­les, it’s the re­sponse to the de­feat that mat­ters most now.

Some Rams ex­pected to ac­tu­ally feel a de­gree of re­lief in the com­ing days now that the quest for per­fec­tion has ended.

Oth­ers, re­lay­ing the postgame mes­sage from coach Sean McVay, said the chal­lenges of the last two weeks (ral­ly­ing and then hang­ing on late to de­feat the Pack­ers and com­ing back from 21 down to tie the Saints be­fore fall­ing short) will even­tu­ally prove beneficial.

The game re­vealed mul­ti­ple deficien­cies for Los An­ge­les’ de­fense. Sure, Peters got toasted by the Saints. And coach Sean Pay­ton told re­porters af­ter the game, “They were go­ing to travel Mar­cus to (Thomas), and that was fine by us. We thought we re­ally liked that matchup — a lot.”

But this de­fense has fallen short of ex­pec­ta­tions. The Rams rank a pedes­trian 14th against the pass (243.3 yards per game) and are tied for 13th in sacks (22). Aaron Don­ald can’t be the only guy con­sis­tently get­ting af­ter the quar­ter­back, which is a big rea­son Los An­ge­les traded for Dante Fowler. And the Rams can’t just ex­pect the healthy re­turn of top cor­ner Aqib Talib to mag­i­cally fix things ei­ther. All of their de­fen­sive backs CHUCK COOK/USA TO­DAY SPORTS must raise their level of play.

The same goes for the lineback­ers, who strug­gled to cover both do-it-all run­ning back Alvin Ka­mara (four catches for 34 yards and a touch­down) and tight end Ben­jamin Wat­son (three catches for 62 yards and a score).

There’s no ques­tion­ing the con­tin­ued growth of third-year quar­ter­back Jared Goff, who shrugged off set­backs against New Or­leans and kept at­tack­ing downfield. Offen­sive play­ers drew en­cour­age­ment from their abil­ity to work through rough patches and re­dis­cover their rhythm like they did in the sec­ond half against the Saints.

But af­ter the Week 9 de­feat, it’s more ev­i­dent than ever that if the Rams ex­pect to make their Su­per Bowl as­pi­ra­tions a re­al­ity, they will need much more out of a de­fen­sive unit that has sur­ren­dered an av­er­age of 31.4 points and 424.4 yards per game against op­po­nents with records of .500 or bet­ter.

“Ad­ver­sity is nec­es­sary in this league,” safety La­mar­cus Joyner said. “Es­pe­cially games like this when it’s the type of op­po­nents you’re go­ing to see in the play­offs. It’s good to get that ad­ver­sity early and know how you can get bet­ter as a team.” Peters agreed and made a pre­dic­tion. “It’s ac­tu­ally go­ing to be a good thing for us,” he said. “We get to go back to work and have an ex­tra hunger.”


Rams head coach Sean McVay talks to quar­ter­back Jared Goff in the fourth quar­ter against the Saints at Mer­cedes-Benz Su­per­dome.

Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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