NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana - The Los Angeles Rams are back in the Super Bowl, and they needed overtime to get there. The Rams edged the top-seeded Saints, 26-23, in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in New Orleans.
Los Angeles will face the New England Patriots on Sunday, Feb. 3, in Super Bowl LIII. Here's what we learned from the Rams' win over the Saints:
1. If last week's divisional round action underwhelmed, Sunday's NFC title tilt slowly morphed into a memorable thriller capped by Greg Zuerlein's money-in-the bank, 57-yard field goal in overtime to airmail the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.
Saints fans were left stunned as Zuerlein's kick - off a bad snap - came just minutes after Saints quarterback Drew Brees was hit by Dante Fowler Jr. on a wobbly lob that wound up in the arms of safety John Johnson.
Trailing the entire way, the resilient Rams now make Jared Goff the youngest NFC quarterback in NFL lore to reach the big game.
2. So how did we get to overtime -- and this stunning loss for the Saints?
After digging themselves out of a 14-0 hole last week against the Eagles, New Orleans on Sunday never trailed until the final play. Still, they hardly operated at the height of their powers. After teaming with Los Angeles for 80 points in their Week 9 tussle, Sunday's showdown felt comparatively formless for minutes at a time. The Saints built a 20-10 advantage midway through the third quarter when Brees (with 249 yards and two scores) hit the ultra-dynamic Taysom Hill for a 2-yard touchdown on a drive that saw Alvin Kamara punch through Los Angeles for 34 yards off four grabs.
It felt as if the home-team Saints might pull away from there, but the Rams defense refused to die - helped along the way by a play that will be discussed for months. With the game tied 20-20 at the two-minute warning, Brees airmailed a 43-yard bomb to Ted Ginn to the Los Angeles 13. The crowd melted seconds later - on third-and-10 from that same spot -- when Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman was somehow not flagged on a pass breakup that saw him clearly collide with wideout Tommylee Lewis. Robey-Coleman was fortunate, but he likely could have pulled down an interception had he turned to see the ball. It's also fair to wonder if New Orleans would have been in that situation to begin with had coach Sean Payton done a better job with clock management.
3. The Rams showed their own brand of fight, overcoming a mistake-prone, out-of-sync start to go punch-for-punch with the Saints down the stretch. A collection of big-money plays led the way:
- Los Angeles finally quelled the Superdome noise early in the second quarter when coach Sean McVay and special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel dialed up a fake punt that saw Johnny Hekker peg Sam Shields on a catch-and-run that kept the march alive.
- That series ended with a field goal, but Goff spun hope two drives later with a beautiful 36-yard, over-the-shoulder dart to Brandin Cooks to set up a 6-yard scoring burst by Todd Gurley to cut the New Orleans lead to 13-10 before the half.
- Down 20-17 in the fourth, Goff hit tight end Gerald Everett for a catch-and-rumble 39 yards before unfurling a 33-yard lob to Josh Reynolds to set up a field goal that triggered a 20-20 tie with five minutes to play. Later faced with fourth-and-goal from the New Orleans 1, McVay opted for the kick. Would he have done so if a different version of Gurley were waiting in the wings? More on that below.
- Down 23-20 with the game on the line, Goff was money hitting Reynolds for 19 yards before Woods made a leaping grab for 16 yards to put the ball at the New Orleans 33. Goff panicked on third down by unfurling a quick incompletion, but Zuerlein's wavering-but-successful 48-yard game-tying kick sent the game into a fifth period .
- Come overtime, Goff - to me - appeared more at home in the Superdome, sensing pressure and finding tight end Tyler Higbee on a handful of game-changing completions.
4. Get ready for two weeks of breathless coverage around Gurley, who finished with just 10 yards off four totes. His touchdown gallop failed to mask over an otherwise ugly afternoon. It began when Saints linebacker Demario Davis got the best of Gurley early, stuffing the runner for a loss on his first carry before turning a dropped pass by the star back into a killer pick of Goff. Gurley's ups and downs quickly became a narrative as cameras showed him nestled on the sideline as McVay used C.J. Anderson (16/44) on the ground for long chunks of time. Gurley buzz-killed a subsequent series with another drop on a key third down in the red zone before also appearing to miss a block on a Goff incompletion. The bright spot here is a Rams offense that just beat the Saints with their best player operating as a non-factor. They'll need Gurley at his best, though, two Sundays from now.
5. The Rams' defense deserves credit for holding the Saints to a pair of field goals out of the gate, especially when that Davis interception set New Orleans up at the Los Angeles 16-yard line. Ndamukong Suh followed up last week's blue-ribbon effort with a strong outing against the run and 1.5 game-changing sacks. Aaron Donald didn't light up the box score, but showed flashes of dominance in the second half.
6. Davis and Cam Jordan helped a Saints defense that gave the offense a chance to win and drew energy from a home crowd that operated at a fever pitch. McVay called it the most noisome throng in memory, while the FOX broadcast showed Los Angeles equipment staffers feverishly working on the communication technology inside Goff's helmet. The Rams also struggled to call plays in the huddle, but McVay's boys ultimately found a way out of this madness.
7. With veteran Saints tight end Ben Watson out of the lineup battling appendicitis, Payton could only watch as reserve Dan Arnold dropped a would-be touchdown. A fellow reserve stepped up two drives later, though, as tight end Garrett Griffin hauled in the game's first score. That was made possible when Michael Brockers was flagged for encroachment on fourth-and-2 from the Rams' 10.
8. Michael Thomas set a Saints single-game record with 211 receiving yards in the team's Week 9 win over the Rams -- and carried New Orleans in last week's win over the Eagles. On Sunday, facing variations of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, Thomas finished with just 36 yards off four grabs. It was Kamara who paced the Saints with 96 yards off 11 grabs, but the big plays to Thomas were sorely missed.
9. Prepare for a Biblical flood of McVay written think-pieces and televised featurettes. They're coming -- in hordes -- and, well, he's earned them.