Sometimes teams are what we think they are – either just as good, or just as bad.
The Los Angeles Rams are just as good as we thought they are.
That's one of the things we learned in the Rams' 30-16 victory over the Detroit Lions Sunday.
As a team, they didn't play their best ball for the full 60 minutes, but they were as dominant as their 11-1 won-loss record would indicate in key situations.
We also learned that their stars – defensive tackle Aaron Donald and running back Todd Gurley – can make game-deciding plays when the outcome is in doubt. That isn't a revelation, but both players showed that they don't live on their reputations alone. They add to them with performance.
Among other things we learned include the following: That trying to even up the talent gap with trick plays comes with a risk; practice does not make perfect, including on onside kicks; and Taylor Decker kept his cool when doing something for the first time in his football career.
We start with the Rams:
They didn't play their best football on offense or defense for the full 60 minutes. They had a 16-13 lead after three quarters, and they were far below their averages for yards and points. As it turned out, they fell short of their per game averages for points (34.9) and yards (439.9). They wound up with a net of 344 yards – 95.9 below their average.
But they dominated the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns – both on runs by Gurley – and held the Lions to a field goal.
The stars – Donald and Gurley – came out as bright as ever to make the key plays in this order:
View in-game photos from the Detroit Lions Week 13 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Donald: It was still 16-13 Rams, and anyone's game, when the Lions had first and 10 at their 42 with 8:26 left. It was a situation for Matthew Stafford to engineer one of his patented comebacks.
Except this year, that patent is pending – for however long. As Stafford dropped back to pass, Donald exploded through a gap to sack Stafford and rip the ball from his grasp. The Rams recovered at the Lions' 24.
It was a timely play in another big game for Donald. He had two sacks, four tackles for loss and the forced fumble. And on the sack-fumble, he handed off the opportunity to play a starring role to Gurley.
Gurley: He was held relatively in check through the first three quarters, but with the game on the line he played like the best running back in the league – which he is.
Three plays after Donald's sack and forced fumble, Gurley ran 13 yards for a touchdown to make it 23-13.
And later, after the Lions had cut it to 23-16 on Matt Prater's field goal, Gurley took over to put the game out of reach. A 36-yard run on third and three gave the Rams first and goal at the two. Gurley added the final two yards on second down to clinch the game.
For the game, he had 132 yards rushing and 33 receiving. In the clutch, he was perfect.
Onside kicks: As we learned again Sunday, there are two kinds of onside kicks. One is the traditional onside kick after a team scores a late touchdown and needs to get the ball back again. The other is the "surprise" onside kick, which is what the Lions tried in the third quarter after making a field goal.
Neither one worked.
On the "surprise" kick, Sam Martin did not kick the ball the required 10 yards to make it a legal kick. The Rams got the ball at the Lions' 38 and drove to a field goal.
Martin did not make any excuses for the short kick. He said he didn't hit the ball cleanly. However, he was somewhat surprised at the way the ball bounced – or didn't bounce, actually.
"That ball usually rolls out," Martin said. "It kind of got stuck. That ball's got to land at nine of 10 (yards), not seven or six – whatever it did."
For anyone wondering (besides me), the Lions had one practice outdoors last week, but Martin said he practiced his onside kicks indoors. The playing surface at the indoor facility is the same as the one at Ford Field, Martin said.
Tricks, risk-reward: They're great when they work, which was the case on the touchdown pass to offensive tackle Taylor Decker. When they fail – as the two onside kicks did – it's the opposite.
Decker deserves credit for the way he executed on the 11-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. He had an adrenalin rush, knowing the ball would be coming to him for a chance to score his first touchdown at any level.
"My heart rate definitely shot up a little bit," he told reporters.
But in the excitement of the moment, he did all the key things right, in order:
Reported as an eligible receiver, as required under the rules.
Delivered a block, to disguise the fact that he was going out for a pass.
Turned and ran, unguarded, and caught the ball – a soft lob from Matthew Stafford – when he was wide open with a clear path to the end zone.
End result: Touchdown, Taylor made.