It qualified as another unwelcome milepost in a seemingly lost season, another symbolic sign that if the defending Super Bowl champion Rams are not done they are inching ever closer.
Midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s 27-20 defeat by the New Orleans Saints, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford walked tentatively to the sideline after he was sacked. He sat on the bench, coach Sean McVay racing to his side where they were immediately joined by team medical personnel.
And then Stafford, who had come out of concussion protocol Friday, slowly got up and walked as the Rams’ trainer ominously raised the blue injury tent.
It might as well have been a white flag.
The loss at the Superdome dropped the Rams’ record to 3-7 and put them on the brink of elimination from playoff contention.
With the 34-year-old Stafford being evaluated for a concussion for the second time in three weeks, it seems unlikely that the Rams will risk his health and play him next Sunday against the powerful Kansas City Chiefs. And, perhaps, the rest of the season.
“We have to make a smart decision for Matthew,” McVay said.
Asked what it would mean for the Rams if they must go forward without Stafford, McVay said it was too soon to answer.
“There’s a lot of things we’re working through that are, I would say, unprecedented,” he said.
Here’s one: This is the first time in McVay’s six seasons that the Rams have lost four games in a row.
So the Rams are in uncharted territory.
On Sunday, they had hoped to repeat their feat of 2021, when they ended a three-game November losing streak and began a run of five consecutive wins. The Rams backed into the NFC West title and then won three playoff games before defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI.
The chance for a similar scenario, however ill-founded, remained alive after Stafford connected with Tutu Atwell for a 62-yard touchdown and then found Allen Robinson for a short touchdown pass just before halftime for a 14-10 lead.
Stafford displayed no ill effects from having sat out last week’s defeat by the Arizona Cardinals because he was in concussion protocol. He even scrambled to the middle of the field on a third down, absorbing upper-body contact as he slid to the turf.
But on the Rams’ first second-half series, Stafford took a sack that ended his day. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns before he gave way to Bryce Perkins.
Perkins led two field-goal drives, but that was not enough as Saints quarterback Andy Dalton and hybrid-extraordinaire Taysom Hill picked apart the defense for 17 second-half points.
Now the Rams’ losing streak has a strong possibility of growing with a road trip to play the Chiefs and a game against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks coming next.
The Rams will be without star receiver Cooper Kupp, who is recovering from ankle surgery. With left tackle Ty Nsekhe suffering an ankle injury Sunday, they will start a different offensive line combination for the 11th time in 11 games.
And now Stafford could be out.
“We can’t catch a break,” linebacker Ernest Jones said. “But, honestly, other than that we’ve got to play better.”
McVay’s biggest challenge at this point might be preventing his players from packing it in.
“You challenge the guys to have enough pride to know we’re all professionals here, this is our job,” McVay said. “We got to be able to focus on getting better, going back to work, and that’s what pros do.
“And you’ve got to have enough pride and understand that, ‘Hey, these are some challenging times but you can’t jump off the roller coaster.‘ ”
Through 10 games, it’s mostly been a downhill ride with dangerous curves for the Rams.
“It’s the NFL,” safety Nick Scott said. “It’s tough to get kind of backed into a corner. So, you just got to keep playing hard.”
The Rams technically still have a chance to make the playoffs. Nothing will become official until they are mathematically eliminated.
But it doesn’t take a math genius to recognize they cannot conjure a winning formula.
A road trip to Kansas City during Thanksgiving weekend offers no relief. Rams players said they must remain optimistic.
“We have to be,” Jones said, “because if we don’t it’ll be an even longer season. We’ll keep having these conversations.
“So, we’ve got to constantly believe we can turn this thing around.”