INGLEWOOD, Calif. – John Wolford's NFL debut started with an interception on his first throw. It ended with the inexperienced quarterback fearlessly leading the Los Angeles Rams back to the playoffs.
And though Wolford capably did his part, everybody in the Rams' jubilant locker room realized they owed this achievement to a dominant defense that scored as many points as the Rams' offense — and a couple more than the Arizona Cardinals — in Los Angeles' 18-7 victory Sunday.
Troy Hill returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown to lead yet another overwhelming defensive performance by the Rams (10-6), who earned their third postseason berth in four years under coach Sean McVay. They will play at Seattle on Saturday at 4:40 p.m. EST.
Wolford passed for 231 yards and rushed for 56 more, producing many moments of excitement in place of injured Jared Goff. While he got more comfortable with each series, Wolford realized he had the luxury of being backed by a defense that has remedied the flaws of LA's inconsistent offense all year long.
“The defense played unbelievable,” said Wolford, who went 22 for 38. “And we got a block on special teams. Guys were fired up. We had energy throughout the entire game. It was a team win all across the board. I just love this organization, and I’m happy they gave me a shot.”
The Rams would have reached the playoffs even with a loss because Green Bay beat Chicago while a few minutes were left at SoFi Stadium. Despite failing to score an offensive touchdown for the second straight game, Los Angeles still snapped its two-game skid heading to the postseason with its eighth consecutive win over Arizona (8-8).
Aaron Donald’s group scored nine points on Hill’s pick-6 and a safety while holding the Cardinals to 214 yards and shutting them out for the final 55 minutes. Coordinator Brandon Staley’s unit finished the regular season allowing the fewest points (296) and total yards (4,511) in the NFL.
“I was really impressed with (Wolford), but I was proud of this team,” McVay said. “I just can't say enough about the defense. ... They’ve been unbelievable all year. They’ve really been the strength of this team, and I thought they showed up in a big way.”
Kyler Murray passed for 87 yards after sitting out for most of the first three quarters with an ankle injury for the Cardinals, who missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. Arizona would have clinched a postseason spot with a victory.
“Not being able to play in a majority of this game stinks,” said Murray, who got injured on a tackle during Arizona's opening drive. “I know we are a playoff team, but we hurt ourselves and we held ourselves back.”
Chris Streveler passed for 105 yards in his first significant NFL action, throwing a TD pass to Jonathan Ward. Murray's backup also threw that crucial interception shortly before halftime to Hill, who tipped the ball to himself and rambled for his third touchdown in six games — and the second pick-6 against Arizona this season for a six-year veteran who had never scored before this stretch.
“We just became best friends this year,” Hill said of the end zone.
Murray's first drive after returning ended in a blocked field goal by A'Shawn Robinson, and the Cards never got in scoring range again.
Los Angeles got a safety in the second quarter when Arizona left guard Justin Pugh held Robinson in the end zone moments after Cam Akers fumbled at the 1. Rams linebacker Leonard Floyd also triggered a $1.25 million bonus in his contract with another sack, his 10th of an outstanding season.
BEWARE THE WOLF
Wolford was forced to take his first NFL snaps in this crucial game after Goff injured his thumb last week. The Wake Forest product showed why McVay is high on him — after a big early bump, that is.
His first pass went straight to linebacker Jordan Hicks deep in Rams territory. Wolford shook off the Cards' subsequent TD and led the Rams on three lengthy drives in the first half with his arm and his feet.
Wolford racked up 47 yards rushing in the first half — more than Goff managed in any game of his five-year career.
Murray returned for the fourth quarter and immediately drove the Cardinals deep into Rams territory, but Jalen Ramsey made a remarkable deflection on third down before Robinson blocked a field-goal attempt with 9:01 to play.
Wolford made several big plays down the stretch, including a scramble for a first down on third-and-8 with 2:40 to play, all but sealing the victory.
“He came out and got some good runs,” Cardinals linebacker Markus Golden said. “I know QB is a top position and the best player, but at the same time, the second guy is an NFL player. You ain’t here for show and tell.”
Cardinals: WR Larry Fitzgerald didn't play because of a groin injury in what could have been the final game of his impressive 17-season career. ... Hicks injured his neck shortly after his interception in the first quarter, and he didn't return.
Rams: They played without their leading passer, leading rusher (Darrell Henderson) and leading receiver (Cooper Kupp).
Cardinals: A long offseason after a talented team still produced its fifth consecutive non-winning season.
Rams: A trip to Seattle for a Saturday matchup with the Seahawks. McVay said he didn't know whether Goff will play.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL