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Fowler's big hit leads to Johnson's overtime pick, helping clinch NFC Championship

NEW ORLEANS — When the Rams visited the Mercedes-Benz Superdome back in Week 9, they finished with no sacks, four quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss.

That 45-35 loss was outside linebacker Dante Fowler's first game with Los Angeles, after the pass rusher was acquired from Jacksonville at the trading deadline.

You know by now that the Rams flipped the script on Sunday, defeating the Saints 26-23 in an overtime thriller that made L.A. conference champions and sent them on a trip to Atlanta.

And it was Fowler who started Los Angeles' only takeaway of the day — and it was the only one the Rams needed.

On 2nd-and-16 from New Orleans' 42-yard line, Fowler rushed from quarterback Drew Brees' right. He bull-rushed right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, driving the offensive lineman a couple yards into the backfield. But then Fowler put on a spin move, getting free and into Brees' face as the future Hall of Famer was winding up to throw.

"Drew Brees still had the ball in his hand and was looking downfield, which he always does — good quarterbacks always do," Fowler explained, postgame. "But I think he didn't see me — he saw me last minute. He tried to throw it and I saw his hand — it was too late."

Fowler put a good hit on Brees, forcing an errant pass across the quarterback's body to the left side of the field. And that's where safety John Johnson was, but he had to wait for what seemed like forever for the pass to land in his arms.

"It was up there like a balloon," Johnson said in the victorious locker room. "I was just trying to catch it before the receiver broke it up. And I know I had to secure it. It was overtime. It was do-or-die. So I was happy I caught it."

"[T]ips and overthrows, we got to get those — and J.J. came down with it," Fowler said.

As consequential as that was, it wasn't Fowler's only big-time play in the game. The outside linebacker also split a sack with defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh on a key back-to-back sacks sequence in the second quarter.

Fowler seems to have a knack for making big plays in conference championships, having recorded 2.0 sacks on quarterback Tom Brady during last year's AFC title game. But Fowler explained there's one significant difference between then and now.

"These are big stages. I've been here last year and I watched these games growing up and I just knew what it took. I just know the blueprint, just to really get to the quarterback, guys like these," Fowler said. "I played Brady last year, I knew that I had to get to him — which I did good in the first half, but I didn't in the second half and that's when they won. This second half, I told myself that wasn't going to happen again and I was able to get the opportunity in overtime and I just came up with it. I was happy that I could make the play for this team."

And when kicker Greg Zuerlein then hit the game-winning field goal from 57-yards out?

"It looked like it was good from 70," Johnson said. "We've got the most confidence in Greg. We knew he was going to make it right down the middle. So, that crowd went silent and we won the game."

"It's great to just be champion in general," Fowler said. "I've never won a championship in my life, I've been there, but always lost. I'm finally able to wear a shirt that says 'Champions' on it and able to go down in history as a champion."