Rams get break, then beat Saints for NFC title

NEW ORLEANS — A big comeback. A blown call. And, finally, a booming kick that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl.

After rallying from an early 13-0 deficit, the Rams beat the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, winning 26-23 on Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal in overtime Sunday.

As a result, the Rams will face the New England Patriots, 37-31 overtime winners in the AFC Championship Game, in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3.

The outcome of the NFC’s title game might not have been possible without an egregious mistake by the officials in the closing minutes of regulation. That’s when Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed a blatant pass-interference penalty, contacting New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis before the pass arrived inside the 5. No flag was thrown, and the Saints settled for Wil Lutz’s 31-yard field goal that made it 23-20 with 1:41 left in regulation.

“Came to the sideline, looked at the football gods and was like, ‘Thank you,’” Robey-Coleman said. “I got away with one.”

After the no-call, quarterback Jared Goff had enough time to lead the Rams down the field for Zuerlein’s tying field goal, a 48-yarder with 15 seconds remaining in regulation.

New Orleans won the coin toss and got the ball first in overtime. But, with Dante Fowler Jr. in his face and striking his arm, quarterback Drew Brees unleashed a fluttering a pass that was picked off by John Johnson III.

The Rams weren’t able to do much offensively after the turnover, but it didn’t matter. Zuerlein booted the winning field goal with plenty of room to spare. The NFL said the 57-yarder was longest game-winning kick in playoff history.

“It’s unbelievable, man. I can’t put it into words,” said Goff, a Novato native and Cal alum who, at 24, became the youngest quarterback to win an NFC title. “The defense played the way they did to force it to overtime. The defense gets a pick and Greg makes a 57-yarder to win it. That was good from about 70. Unbelievable.”

The Superdome, which had been in uproar all afternoon, turned silent after the winning kick. It was the first home playoff loss for the Saints with Brees and head coach Sean Payton, who and been 6-0 in those games since their pairing began in 2006.

This one really hurt.

If the pass-interference penalty had been called, the Saints could have run most of the time off the clock to set up for a winning field goal from chip-shot range.

“Being that it happened right there in front of the person who would be the one to make the call, and everyone in the stands saw it, everyone watching at home on TV saw it, that makes it even more difficult to take,” Brees said. “Because of this, I’m sure there will be a lot of talk about reviewing penalties, perhaps game-changing penalties.”

The Rams continued a remarkable rise since moving back to Los Angeles three years ago. The team will be appearing in its first Super Bowl since the 2001 season, when the team then known as the “Greatest Show on Turf” was still in St. Louis.

The Rams haven’t won an NFL title in Los Angeles since 1951, well before the Super Bowl era. The team moved to St. Louis in 1995, only to return to Southern California two decades later.

“Shoot, I don’t even know what day it is,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said. “All I know is we’re NFC champs, baby!”

It was another bitter end for the Saints, whose 2017 season ended in the divisional round on the “Minneapolis Miracle” — a 61-yard TD pass on the final play that gave Minnesota a 29-24 victory.

This time, New Orleans couldn’t maintain its lead or overcome an officiating mistake.

Payton said he talked to the NFL office after the game and was told that Robey-Coleman should have been flagged.

“Not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet,” the head coach said. “I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference.”

Paul Newberry is an Associated Press writer.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Rams-get-break-then-beat-Saints-for-NFC-title-13548877.php.

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