NEW ORLEANS — It took more than 63 minutes of play, but the Rams finally found a way to silence the Superdome crowd in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
With the packed house shaking in frenzy and the decibels rising higher than they had reached all day, Greg Zuerlein stepped in and provided a game-winning 57-yard field goal 3:17 into overtime to beat the Saints, 26-23, and send the Rams to the Super Bowl. The building that had been rocking since pregame fell eerily silent, so much so that the shouts of joy from the Rams players as they ran onto the field could be heard echoing throughout the enormous structure.
The auditory phenomenon of the wave of sound being shut off like a spigot was lost on Zuerlein, however.
“To be honest, I thought it got louder after the kick went through,” he told Newsday. “My teammates screaming and yelling right in my ear as opposed to the fans, I thought it got louder.”
Still, Zuerlein recognized what he had done to the crowd that had been torturing the Rams all afternoon, creating chaos and confusion on the field.
“By the time I looked up,” he said of the moments after the kick the longest game-winning kick in NFL postseason history, “the building was pretty much empty.”
The overtime points gave the Rams their only lead of a game that was dominated by the Saints. Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in regulation had tied the score, but even then it seemed as if the Saints were in control. They won the overtime coin toss and Drew Brees took the field.
Just over a minute into the first extra period of play in a conference title game since the Seahawks beat the Packers in 2015, Brees was picked off. The quarterback was hit by Dante Fowler, sending the ball fluttering in the air. Michael Thomas couldn’t find the floater, but John Johnson III did and he made the pick while falling backward at the Rams’ 46.
“I had to have it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want it. I HAD to have it.”
Four plays later, the kick that decided the game was up and good.
Both teams had a chance to score go-ahead touchdowns rather than field goals in the final five minutes of regulation. The Rams reached the Saints’ 1-yard line trailing 20-17 but McVay decided to tie the score rather than go for the end zone on fourth-and-goal. Then, the Saints were driving and should have been awarded a first-and-goal on a blatant pass interference by cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman against Tommylee Lewis. There was no flag even though the NFL later admitted to the Saints there should have been, and the Saints had to settle for a field goal and a 23-20 edge with 1:41 left. Those would be their last points of the season.
The Rams advanced to Super Bowl XLIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3.
“I’ve never coached in an atmosphere like that ever,” Rams coach Sean McVay said of the impact of the noise in the Superdome on his team, joking that he had headaches from having to scream over the din for almost four hours. “It was so loud. We had communication issues from the start. But we dealt with big-time adversity and it kind of personified what kind of team this has been throughout the course of the year.”
Goff’s radio connection with the sideline was on the blink at the start of the game, so he swapped helmets with backup quarterback Sean Mannion and wore that one for a while. Goff wound up putting tape over the ear holes in his own helmet to block out some of the thunder in the second half.
“It helped tremendously,” he said. “I wish I would have done that from the beginning.”
Even with the MacGyvered earmuffs, things were so bad for the Rams that in the fourth quarter, when they trailed 20-17 and were driving for what would eventually be a tying field goal with 5:03 left, Goff had to sprint out in the formation to relay a play adjustment to tight end Gerald Everett who was lined up wide. McVay called a timeout just prior to that snap to save an incompletion, and when the Rams regrouped following the stoppage they converted a third-and-3 from their own 16… on a 39-yard pass to Everett.
The Saints seemed to be running away with the game early, pouncing to a 13-0 lead. But the Rams, who looked shaken an inept for most of the first quarter, were able to get some footing. Their first grip came by way of a fake punt for a first down when Johnny Hekker completed a pass to Sam Shields – the ol’ punter-to-cornerback pass – to extend a drive that resulted in a Rams field goal.
The Rams’ defense settled in, too, and kept the Saints off the board for the rest of the half. They forced a Saints punt with 1:52 remaining in the second quarter, giving the offense a chance to score before the break. In a flash of efficiency, the Rams drove 81 yards in 7 plays to close the gap to 13-10 with 23 seconds left. On third-and-10 from their own 41, Goff hit Brandin Cooks on back-to-back receptions of 17 and 36 yards and Todd Gurley ran in from the 6 for the touchdown.
The Saints took a 20-10 lead on their first possession of the second half when Brees hit backup quarterback and gadgetmeister Taysom Hill for a 2-yard touchdown pass. But the Rams responded with their most impressive drive of the game, going 75 yards and closing to 20-17 with 3:06 left in the third when Goff hit a wide-open Tyler Higbee for a 1-yard touchdown pass.
McVay gushed about the way Goff, perceived by many as the fourth-most impressive quarterback in this playoff round, remained poised and in control, and about how he was able to push through the ear-popping distractions provided by the New Orleans faithful. Goff threw an early interception but wound up completing 25 of 40 passes for 297 yards. He also ran for 10 yards.
Goff will be the less-heralded quarterback in the Super Bowl match-up as well. Which is fine with the Rams.
“We’re sure glad he’s our quarterback,” McVay said. “We feel like he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this league and I wouldn’t want anyone else to lead our football team.”
The loss marked the second straight year that the Saints’ season ended with a playoff loss on the final snap.
“We have to find somewhere in our hearts to get the big ones,” Saints receiver Ted Ginn said.
It will undoubtedly stick with the Saints throughout the offseason. The Rams? They get two more weeks to enjoy this season.
Said an already grinning McVay: “We’ll see if we can end this thing with real big smiles after the next game.”