On the final day of the regular season, Los Angeles missed an opportunity to slam the door on San Francisco.
It cost the Rams the two-seed in the NFC. The losing streak to the team's most bitter rival ballooned to six games.
As painful as that was, it led to this moment – the opportunity to host the conference championship in the Super Bowl stadium, a first in NFL history – and a rematch with those same 49ers.
Rarely does redemption present itself so quickly, or so completely.
The Rams let the Niners in.
It's only right that Los Angeles be the one to show San Francisco out.
After the way last weekend played out, not just for the Rams but across the Divisional Round, it would be borderline negligent to start with any topic other than the kicking game.
Matt Gay booted the Rams past the Bucs as time expired, of course.
But before that, Johnny Hekker and Ben Skowronek and Grant Haley continued the punt team's January magic.
Brandon Powell's 33-yard return led to a 27-3 lead.
And the transformation of the Rams special teams unit from a liability to an asset has been one of the most important storylines in the entire league.
Similarly, in a grudge match between two franchises that had been dragged down all season by miscues in the kicking game, the 49ers were able to win at Lambeau WITHOUT THE BENEFIT OF AN OFFENSIVE TOUCHDOWN.
I don't care how cold it was, that's golden. Or in this case, Gould-en.
Perhaps you've been made aware of Robbie Gould's unblemished postseason resume. The Niners would not be in Los Angeles this weekend if not for his heroics, and those of the San Francisco special teams contributors who blocked a field goal and scored the tying touchdown off a blocked punt in Green Bay.
This is more digital ink that we typically allot for the kicking game. But let's not kid ourselves. It could all come down to the third phase Sunday.
Walk it Out
That leads us to a cool note from NFL Research.
Prior to this weekend, there have only been two other playoff games in all of league history in which both teams were coming off walk-off wins that same postseason.
The Rams were responsible for one of them: Greg Zuerlein's 57-yarder beat the Saints in overtime in the 2018 NFC Championship. The Patriots reached the Super Bowl by way of a two-yard Rex Burkhead touchdown in overtime in Kansas City.
(The 2003 NFC Championship between Eagles and Panthers was the other such contest.)
Now, of course, in January 2022, each of the final four teams land in conference title tilts thanks to walk-off heroics.
Jimmy Geez Louise
If you have the better quarterback entering any NFL game, you should feel great about your chances.
And this weekend, the Rams absolutely have the better signal-caller.
This is more about what Matthew Stafford has done the past two weeks, but briefly on Jimmy Garoppolo: He's 4-1 in his playoff career as a starter (losing only SB LIV), and in all four of those wins he has passed for fewer than 175 yards.
To his everlasting credit, he's lifted San Francisco in three straight road elimination games despite throwing for one touchdown versus four interceptions, combined. And it seems he always brings his best against the Rams.
Meantime, Stafford's postseason rating is more than 68 points higher than his counterpart's this season. In fact, for a player whose reputation was centered around postseason shortcomings, he’s been elite.
But Can You Protect Him?
That's my top question for this week – even ahead of tackling Deebo Samuel, which we'll get to in a moment.
According to NextGen Stats, the 49ers have five players with at least six pressures in the 2021 postseason: Arik Armstead (9), former Ram Samson Ebukam (8), Nick Bosa (6), D.J. Jones (6), and Charles Omenihu (6). No other team has more than two such players.
No wonder San Francisco leads the field with 10 sacks since the second season began.
But it was just as evident and problematic back in Week 18. The Rams offensive line surrendered 22 pressures on 38 drop backs.
That's not good enough, but it's not just about those five up front. Stafford and Sean McVay will tell you – you must protect with all 11.
This weekend, the Rams have to be more stout in pass protection, eligibles have to win their routes sooner and with more regularity, Stafford needs to process with computer chip speed, and McVay needs to offer his offense timing and rhythm opportunities.
Sounds like a lot – and it is – but I don't think there's anything more important to the outcome.
Can You Get Them In Man?
And here's why the 49ers aren't the Cardinals or the Buccaneers – both of whom Stafford and McVay chopped up.
The Niners beat your five with their four. They're like the Titans from Week 9 in that regard.
Again per Next Gen, they've only blitzed the Rams on 12.5% of drop backs this season. Stafford has put together arguably the best season of all-time against the blitz, but has been far less effective when teams play coverage behind four-man rushes.
If you can make San Francisco commit more bodies to their attack – and in turn play man behind it – you're well on your way to the Super Bowl. Their defense has allowed 15 touchdowns without a single interception when in man, according to PFF.
But can you shut down their front four convincingly enough to make them deviate from their bread and butter?
OBJ All Day
For all the incredible things Odell Beckham Jr. has done as a Ram, bothering the Niners isn't one of them.
I fully expect that to change in the NFC Championship.
I believe he's leveled up even since Week 18. I believe Stafford and McVay have an even better understanding of how and where they want to utilize and target him. And with Cooper Kupp certain to command Deebo Samuel-like attention, the Rams are going to need OBJ to be the secondary target in the short and intermediate areas like he was in Tampa Bay.
Before last weekend, Cam Akers had lost only one fumble in 230 touches as a pro.
To watch him go through that against the Bucs was one of the most nauseating things I've been a part of with this organization.
When the Rams pulled it out of the fire in regulation, there was no one I was more thankful for than Cam Akers, who's given so much to even be in uniform, as you know.
Expect his on-field comeback this week to mirror his physical comeback from 2021. He'll run through a wall of Red and Gold – with five or even six points of pressure, of course – to set things right.
He's killed Los Angeles as a receiver, as a runner, and even as a passer. And he's talked about it plenty, too.
Kupp (2,209) and Samuel (1,963) have the most and sixth-most scrimmage yards by receivers in a season in NFL history. And they do much of their damage after the catch, ranking one-two in YAC this season, as well.
The Rams need to have their best tackling effort to derail Deebo and the Niners.
(First) Half The Battle
You're well aware that the Rams have built 17-0, 21-0, and 27-3 leads the past three weeks.
We've all aged three years during that span, however, because in two of those games, they coughed up the advantage completely.
San Francisco's win probability in Week 18 sank to 0.4%, per NextGen. Tampa Bay hit a low of 0.5% in the Divisional Round.
Should the Rams be so fortunate as to hold a multi-possession lead against the 49ers this time around, look for the killer instinct to finish the job.
In some instances, like at the end of the first half of Week 18, that might necessitate being more conservative. In others, like at the end of regulation in Week 18, that might require being more aggressive.
But however McVay calls it, it's on the players to make him right in crunch time.
Remember, this is the same operation that set an NFL record for converting 45 straight halftime leads over the past five years.
At the individual level, the unfortunate part about not delivering the dagger against the Niners and Bucs is that Von Miller earned what should have been game-clinching sacks in both those contests.
And he's been on an absolute tear.
His last six outings have produced seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
Do It For Donald
If you saw Sounds of the Game from Tampa (and if you haven't, do so immediately – it's art) what may have jumped out at you was just how vocal Aaron Donald was. That's new.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year revealed this week that Miller has encouraged him in that regard, and it shows.
By the way, I agree with the sentiment that defensive coordinator Raheem Morris articulated so beautifully.
"This building wants to win for Aaron Donald," Morris told the media, referencing how every corner of the organization has been all in on getting their defensive tackle the ring that remains the only thing missing from his trophy case.
I hope there are many more opportunities for Donald. And I believe the Rams are positioned to get back to this level. But there are no guarantees, and there's a decent chance this is the best look he'll get for the remainder of his career. Can't wait to see him and the entire operation attack it.
Finish With the Fans
Finally, it's been the nuisance of the week, and I'm reticent to even acknowledge it.
But when it comes to attendance at SoFi Stadium, I would just like to note: If you're able to be there, we appreciate your investment so much. Throughout the organization, we've poured ourselves into making it a world-class experience for you.
I was repeatedly reminded this week and also want to acknowledge that there are exponentially more of you who can't and won't be there — and if you're reading this, we're grateful for you, too. I hope you'll have the chance to join us in Inglewood soon. Until then, let the team feel your support from afar.
Here's to two more at the Rams House.