Late in the third quarter of the NFC championship game, the Los Angeles Rams fell into a 10-point hole. For most of that period, they had showed few signs they could climb out of it.
Even with all their top-end talent and respected coaching, the Rams (15-5) haven't blown away many opponents this year. They've had to scrap and claw for the majority of their victories, relying on resilience and persistence.
And that's exactly what they did to get to the Super Bowl.
The Rams are stacked with stars, but it's their unflashy competitive tenacity that's standing out during a playoff run now one win short of a championship.
“We had to lock in and give a little bit more,” All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey said after the Rams' 20-17 win over San Francisco. “We had to really want it. It was going to come down to that, wanting it more. We had to show it. Everybody wanted it, but when any of our leaders talk to us and get us around, it gets your mind even more right.”
The Rams are scoring plenty of points primarily because the connection between Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp is incredibly strong. They're improving weekly on defense because the teamwork of Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Ramsey and their supporting cast is increasingly dangerous.
But the Rams are in the Super Bowl because all their big names put the team first over the second half of this season, creating a powerhouse that has answered every challenge down the stretch.
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“Today was a great sign of resilience,” coach Sean McVay said Sunday night. “That’s one of the things that’s embodied this group. You go down 17-7, doesn’t look good. But the guys just stayed in the moment. One play at a time. Did a great job. ... There were just so many great plays today by great players.”
Los Angeles' only remaining obstacle is the AFC North champion Bengals. The Rams had plenty of fun while raising a trophy on a confetti-strewn field, but it's highly unlikely they'll have trouble getting back down to business later this week. Miller said the leaders won't allow the Rams' focus to waver.
“It’s just a blessing to be here and experience it with your teammates and your real brothers,” Miller said. “It’s so surreal, man.”
The Rams carved up an impressive San Francisco defense that knew exactly what was coming in the teams' third meeting of the season. Kupp had five catches for 64 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and he had six catches for 78 yards and a touchdown in the second half. Odell Beckham Jr.'s production was similarly even, and the Rams ran the ball decently even with Cam Akers slowed by an early injury. With 1,199 yards in three postseason games, Los Angeles has found an offensive flow that only turnovers have interrupted.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Rams need their dwindling stock of playmakers to stay healthy. Tight end Tyler Higbee, receiver Van Jefferson and Akers all got hurt against the Niners. Jefferson (one catch for 6 yards on four targets) and Akers (3 yards on three carries) didn't make an impact when they returned, and Higbee couldn’t come back at all. Rookie receiver Ben Skowronek had to play 21 snaps, and he failed to make a tough touchdown reception on his only target.
Los Angeles got a huge boost from Kendall Blanton when Higbee went down with a knee injury. The undrafted tight end barely played for the Rams in his three NFL seasons, only making his first four receptions earlier this season. But Blanton stepped up with a TD catch last week at Tampa Bay, and he filled in superbly for Higbee with five catches for 57 yards against the Niners.
Pro Bowl kicker Matt Gay missed a field-goal attempt for the second straight week, coming up short and right on a 54-yarder in SoFi Stadium's kicker-friendly conditions. He also left two kickoffs short of touchbacks, allowing Deebo Samuel to get his hands on the ball twice. The Rams covered those kicks well, and Gay eventually nailed two fourth-quarter field goals to win it, but Gay acknowledged on Twitter that he's “gotta clean some things up on my end.”
Higbee has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee, and McVay doesn't know whether he'll be ready for the Super Bowl: “He’s such a tough guy. We’re going to do everything we can to get this guy ready to go." ... The Rams had no other major injuries from the game.
51 — The total snaps (100%) played by safety Eric Weddle, the Rams' leading tackler against San Francisco. The 37-year-old veteran ended a two-year retirement less than three weeks ago, agreeing to help out after the Rams lost both starting safeties to injury in the regular-season finale. It's one of the wildest comeback stories in recent sports history.
A Super Bowl matchup in the Rams' home stadium between the winners of likely the two toughest divisions in the NFL.