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Originally published on November 20, 2018 8:01 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NFL fans are still buzzing about last night's game of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Goff on first down. Everett in stride. Wow, touchdown Rams.

CORNISH: The LA Rams outlasted the Kansas City Chiefs in front of an exhausted national TV audience, 54 to 51. It was the rare matchup between two of the league's best teams that actually delivered on all of its promises. Fans and pundits alike are calling last night's game the future of the NFL. Oh, and by the way, it was the first game in NFL history that both teams topped 50 points. Earlier today, we talked to sports writer Robert Mays of the Ringer on Skype. He said it was more than sheer numbers that made this game unusual.

ROBERT MAYS: I think it was just kind of the inevitability that came with every possession. I mean, for the most part, you have NFL teams that have realistic defenses. They can stop people. And on Monday night, it just felt like no one was going to be stopped. There was going to be a touchdown or a field goal or some kind of points on every possession.

And for the most part, that goes against conventional wisdom. And defenses have been so important over the history of the league. And being able to get a stop and get off the field when it matters most has been a necessary component to every single championship team we've pretty much ever seen.

But this - there's been a sea change in the NFL where defense no longer matters as much as it once did. It's more about can you outscore your opponent. And I know that seems (laughter) like it might be self-explanatory and a little bit of a tautology, but it's not necessarily. That is new. That feel to these games is something that hasn't happened previously.

CORNISH: Now, I understand there have been some changes to the rules, some tweaks, right? What are they, and did they have anything to do with the performance we saw last night?

MAYS: There have been tweaks to the rules, and there have been several tweaks. What we saw last night was the emphasis on an inability of being able to touch receivers down the field. You really can't impede their progress anymore. And it's opened up the game in such a way that allows these 54-51 scores to happen. Because cornerbacks and safeties can't necessarily cover wide receivers and other pass catchers in the way they could, we're just going to see teams move up and down the field kind of at will.

CORNISH: There was some grumbling about these rules. People thought perhaps that the league was going soft in a way - right? - in response to the concerns about their handling of concussions and even things like domestic violence. But is that what is panning out?

MAYS: No. I think that we have to take these things into consideration. Player safety matters. And to have wide receivers being able to run down the field without worrying about a 220-pound guy trying to take their head off when they're not looking I feel like is good for the players. And it's good for the product itself. It opens up the game, and it allows the pace of the game and the aesthetics of the game and the stylistic elements of the game to be more pleasing than they probably ever have.

And I do believe that the physicality in terms of big hits and all that has been taken out. But we saw excellent defense last night. We just see it more in individual scattered plays than we do in sequence. And as long as that's possible, as long as defenses can matter to a degree, I don't think the league has softened up to the point where it isn't worth enjoying.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, they're getting plenty of good press for actual on-the-field play, right? (Laughter) Not the stuff going on outside of it.

MAYS: Yeah. The product itself has been as good as it's been in years. I mean, it's worth watching. And Monday Night Football had its best overnight number in four seasons last night. That's not surprising at all. People want to see touchdowns. People want to see excitement. In an era where fantasy football drives so much interest in the game, that's what people want. They want guys getting in the end zone. They want to see, you know, just a heavyweight fight of haymakers going back and forth, touchdown after touchdown. And that's what it was last night. It was just two great teams, you know, trading these beautiful blows in the best way possible.

CORNISH: Robert Mays is a sportswriter with the Ringer. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MAYS: Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "THE GREAT MOUND BATTLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.