NEW ORLEANS — After an overtime thriller, the Los Angeles Rams are the 2018 National Football Conference Champions and will represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIII.
The Rams got down early, but were able to overcome a 13-point, first-quarter deficit to defeat the Saints in New Orleans, 26-23. Los Angeles completed the comeback to hand New Orleans its first home playoff loss in since Sean Payton took over as head coach and Drew Brees took over as quarterback.
This will be the Rams' first Super Bowl appearance since XXXVI.
New Orleans scored a field goal on its first drive, then added another after quarterback Jared Goff's third-down pass went off running back Todd Gurley's hands and into the arms of linebacker Demario Davis. The home team then scored its first touchdown after drawing the Rams offsides on 4th-and-2 from the L.A. 10. Saints quarterback Drew Brees hit tight end Garrett Griffin with a five-yard pass for the touchdown.
Down by 13, the Rams needed something to get them going after another drive looked like it was about to end in a three-and-out. But punter Johnny Hekker cocked his arm on fourth down and found cornerback Sam Shields on the right side for a 12-yard gain on 4th-and-5 for a first down. Los Angeles was able to get further down the field, but the possession stalled on 3rd-and-6 when Gurley dropped a pass for what may have resulted in a first down.
Greg Zuerlein's 36-yard field goal was good to make the score 13-3.
Then late in the first half, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh brought down Brees on back-to-back plays, setting up a long third down. Running back Alvin Kamara was well short of the sticks on his third-down reception from Brees to bring up a punt.
Getting the ball back at the two-minute warning with a pair of timeouts, L.A. was able to get its first touchdown of the day. Goff connected with wide receiver Brandin Cooks on 3rd-and-10 from the L.A. 41 with a 17-yard pass on the right seam. The Rams took a timeout and on the next play, Goff connected with Cooks on a 36-yard pass down the left sideline to the New Orleans six.
From there, Gurley took in a six-yard carry and Zuerlein hit an extra point to make the score 13-10.
It looked like the Rams may have gotten a bit of momentum, with just a three-point deficit going into halftime. But the offense came out for the first possession of the third quarter and went three-and-out.
And then the Saints used a grinding, 12-play, 71-yard drive to get down the field and score. Kamara had five touches on the possession, getting New Orleans into the red zone. But Brees hit do-everything wildcard Taysom Hill with a short screen on the right side for a two-yard touchdown to put the home team up 20-10.
The Rams, however, kept the game close with their next drive. Goff connected with Cooks for gains of four, 14, and then 25 yards to put the offense in New Orleans territory. Then L.A. got the ball in wideout Josh Reynolds' hands on a creative end around for a 16-yard gain down to the one-yard line. A couple plays later, the Saints bit on the play-action fake and Goff connected with a wide open Tyler Higbee for a one-yard touchdown to the tight end.
The defense then came through to force a punt, with slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman notching a pass breakup on 3rd-and-7 from the L.A. 47. But starting with the ball back at their own 13, the Rams went backwards on their ensuing drive and had to punt after a three-and-out. Goff was sacked on second down, which put the Rams well behind the chains.
New Orleans started its drive at the L.A. 46 after a chop block penalty on the punt, which was strong field position for the home team. But a holding penalty put the Saints back in 1st-and-20. After an incomplete pass and a short carry, Brees couldn't hit his 3rd-and-17 target, Ted Ginn, and the home team once again had to punt.
Needing 92 yards to get in the box, Los Angeles got a huge off-schedule play from Goff and tight end Gerald Everett for a 39-yard gain on 3rd-and-3 from the L.A. 16. Then Goff connected with Reynolds on an out-and-up route on the left side for 33 yards, down to the New Orleans seven.
Though the Rams had 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, McVay elected to kick a field goal to tie the game at 20 with 5:03 left in the contest.
Kamara returned the ensuing kickoff to the New Orleans 30, and then caught a pass on 3rd-and-2 for an eight-yard gain to give the home team a first down at its own 46. While defensive tackle Aaron Donald picked up a tackle for loss, Brees then connected with Ginn on a 43-yard pass down the right side to put the ball at the L.A. 13 at the two-minute warning.
On that set of downs, however, Brees threw an incomplete pass on first down, Kamara ran for no gain on second down, and Brees fired another incomplete pass on third down. While Will Lutz connected on his 31-yard field goal to give New Orleans a 23-20 lead, Los Angeles got the ball back with 1:41 left and one timeout after a touchback.
Goff connected with Reynolds over the middle for a 19-yard pass, setting up Los Angeles at its own 44-yard line. Then he hit Cooks to set up 3rd-and-3, and followed that by connecting with an open Robert Woods over the middle for a 16-yard gain to the New Orleans 33.
McVay used the team's last timeout with 45 seconds left following Woods' catch. After a short completion to Gurley, and a rushed incomplete pass on 3rd-and-7, Zuerlein nailed a 48-yard field goal to tie the game at 23 with just 15 seconds to go.
The Saints elected to take a knee after receiving the kickoff and the game went to overtime.
With Kamara taking the ball out of the end zone to the 26-yard line on the kickoff, the Saints got a first down with a pass interference penalty. But then the Rams got their first takeaway of the day on 2nd-and-16 from the New Orleans 34. Following a six-yard TFL by Donald, Fowler came in and hit Brees to force an errant pass on the left side. Safety John Johnson was there to intercept the floating pass, giving the Rams the ball at their own 46.
Goff began the overtime period with a 12-yard completion to Higbee on the right side. After Anderson got stuffed on a run play, Goff completed another pass just like the last to Higbee for a six-yard gain.
After an incompletion on third down, Zuerlein was set up for a 57-yard field goal attempt to send the Rams to Atlanta.
He. Nailed. It.
The Rams will now await the winner of Chiefs-Patriots to find out their opponent in Super Bowl LIII.