An egregious mistake by the refs overshadowed the Los Angeles Rams' moment of triumph.
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For all the debate stirred by a blatant penalty that wasn't called in the closing minutes of the NFC championship game, the Rams thoroughly earned their 26-23 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Playing in one of the NFL's most intimidating road environments, the Rams rallied from an early 13-0 deficit. With the clock winding down, they drove for a tying field goal. And, finally, they came up with a huge interception in overtime to set up Greg Zuerlein's 57-yard field goal -- the longest kick ever to win a playoff game.
"We get to play in the Super Bowl," quarterback Jared Goff said, "and we deserve it."
Just three seasons after moving back to Southern California from St. Louis, the Rams completed a remarkable rise to prominence, led by their 32-year-old wunderkind of a coach, Sean McVay, and the youngest QB ever to win an NFC title. The next stop is Atlanta, where they'll face the five-time champion New England Patriots in the Feb. 3 Super Bowl.
We have a lot of respect for the Saints, but there was an expectation, there was a belief that we were coming in here not to just compete with them but to win the football game," McVay said. "We knew it was going to be a great challenge, but the guys stayed the course.'
Of course, this game will long be remembered for the call that wasn't on Drew Brees' pass to Tommylee Lewis inside the 5-yard line.
Beaten badly on the play, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman leveled Lewis long before the ball arrived -- with a helmet-to-helmet hit, no less. Everyone at the Superdome knew it was a penalty. Everyone, that is, except two officials who were staring right at it.
Their flags stayed tucked in their pockets, forcing the Saints to settle 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 tonight."
After the no-call, Goff had enough time to get the Rams in position for Zuerlein's tying field goal, a 48-yarder with 15 seconds remaining.
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, Brees fluttered up a pass that was picked off by John Johnson III, who was able to hang on to the interception while stumbling backward. Johnson hopped up and celebrated by doing the "Choppa Style" dance popularized by New Orleans rapper Choppa, whose namesake song had become a Saints' rallying cry.
The Rams weren't able to do much offensively, but it didn't matter. Zuerlein booted through the winning field goal from just inside midfield with plenty of room to spare.
"Whether we go through some adversity or we experience some success, we do not let that change us or affect us," Zuerlein said "We just keep on keeping on."
It was the first home playoff loss for the Saints with Brees and coach Sean Payton, who had been 6-0 at the Superdome since their pairing began in 2006.
This one really hurt.
If the pass interference penalty had been called, the Saints could've run most of the time off the clock to set up a winning field goal from chip-shot range. A replay was shown over and over on the Superdome's giant video boards, prompting some fans to toss trash on the field.
"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 (15-3) will be appearing in its first Super Bowl since the 2001 season, when the "Greatest Show on Turf" was still in St. Louis. The team hasn'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 L.A. two decades later.
It was another bitter end for the Saints, who lost the previous season in the divisional round on the "Minnesota Miracle" -- the Vikings' long touchdown pass on the final play of the game.
This time, New Orleans (14-4) couldn't hang on to the lead or overcome that brutal 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 coach said. "I don't know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference."