Zuerlein leads big day for special teams, sending Rams to Super Bowl LIII with 57-yard field goal

NEW ORLEANS — You’ve probably heard kicker Greg Zuerlein’s nickname before.

Greg “The Leg” they call him.

Well, that or “Legatron.”

He’s hit field goals from 60 yards before — 61 yards even, back in the 2015 season.

But he’s never had to nail kicks like this.

The first from 48 yards to tie the game at the end of regulation with just 19 seconds on the clock.

The second from 57 yards to send the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

A big kick? Zuerlein’s probably never had one bigger. And the Rams have never had one from longer in postseason history.

“I really wasn’t thinking much,” Zuerlein said postgame. “I just looked up and saw that it was going straight and I was happy. I knew it was going to be long enough because I thought I hit it pretty well power-wise, I just didn’t want it to tail one way or the next and luckily it stayed true.”

It was just that kind of game — where Los Angeles needed its special teams unit to come through with big plays in order to defeat New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome 26-23 and become NFC Champions for the first time since the 2001 season.

The first came much earlier, when head coach Sean McVay elected to use a fake punt on 4th-and-5 from the L.A. 30-yard line. It was a pivotal moment in the game, as Los Angeles was already down by 13 after an interception ended the first drive, and a punt ended the second.

Punter Johnny Hekker fielded Jake McQuaide’s long snap, cocked his right arm, and then fired a pass on the right side to Sam Shields for a 12-yard gain and a key first down.

While L.A. wasn’t able to get into the end zone, Zuerlein made sure that drive turned into points with his first field goal of the day — from 36-yards out.

“I think more than anything, it was that we needed a little bit of momentum,” McVay said. “We felt like, if the look presented itself, we were going to take it. Sam Shields did a good job running an excellent route. Johnny delivered a ball right on the money, and even though that didn’t end in a touchdown, we ended up getting some points. I thought that just gave us a little bit of life with the way things were going.”

“Johnny made a great throw, Sam made a great play,” Goff said. “It was huge just to get us three points there — enormous. Because if we punt it away there, they score a touchdown, [it would’ve been] 20 to nothing, right? It would’ve been a tough place. So to get three points there, get some momentum, follow that up with a touchdown before the half was probably the biggest point in the game.”

Zuerlein would go on to connect from 24-yards out as well in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 20. McVay knew he’d get questioned about that decision — kicking it when L.A. had the ball inside the one-yard line — so he addressed it before he was even asked.

“With the fourth-down deal, we were moving the ball really well. I think our defense had played really good football up to that point, [so the thought was], ‘OK, if we get it to tie a game, we feel good about the outcome being able to turn in our favor if we are able to get a couple of possessions.’ Ultimately it ended up working out for us because of our players.”

The ultimate outcome proved McVay right — even though it didn’t at first look like the Rams would get that chance. After wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. caught a 43-yard pass to give New Orleans a first down at the Los Angeles 13, the Saints were clearly in field goal range at the two-minute warning. But Brees threw an incompletion, running back Alvin Kamara took a carry for no gain, and Brees throw another incompletion — meaning L.A. had to use only one timeout. And when kicker Will Lutz nailed a 31-yard field goal, there was still 1:41 left on the clock.

That was plenty of time for the Rams to get Zuerlein territory. Goff used three completions to get into New Orleans territory, and then a three-yard pass to running back Todd Gurley to set L.A. up at Saints’ 30.

Zuerlein didn’t need anything more, hitting that 48-yard field goal.

“[I] thought our team’s composure right there — you couldn’t hear anything — for Greg to be able to deliver that kick to be able to send it into overtime was outstanding,” McVay said.

And then, yes, the 57 yarder. Safety John Johnson intercepted Brees at the best possible time, getting Los Angeles the ball at the L.A. 46. And once Goff connected with tight end Tyler Higbee for a 12-yard gain to the New Orleans 42…

“Honestly when we got past the logo — we knew that we were going to win the game,” said outside linebacker Dante Fowler, who put a key hit on Brees to force that interception. “We knew that it was over.”

Goff connected with Higbee on another pass, setting up 3rd-and-7 at the New Orleans 39. And while Cooks couldn’t haul in that screen pass, it really didn’t matter.

“Greg ‘The Leg’ delivers in a big way,” McVay said succinctly of Zuerlein’s franchise-record 57-yard field goal.

And, really, it’s what Zuerlein’s teammates expected.

“The way [Greg] works, the way he practices — he practices those kicks every day and he makes them too,” Fowler said. “So we knew he was going to make it and he did and now we are going to the Super Bowl.”

“That guy nails it from 65,” left guard Rodger Saffold said. “The biggest thing about it is him just trusting himself to be able to knock that thing through in one of the biggest kicks of his entire life and then being able to knock it through the way that he did. That man could have hit it from 60.”

Goff did it one better, and looking at the replay, he’s probably not wrong.

“That field goal would’ve been good from 70 — it was a bomb,” Goff said. “When you have a guy like him out there, with the way he kicks it, the way he’s so consistent, you have so much confidence, so much faith. Get within his range, and it’s in.”

On a day where the Rams needed every yard possible, Zuerlein said this about how far he thought it would’ve been good from.

“I don’t know,” Zuerlein said. “I thought it came off my foot well — well enough, obviously, so that’s all that matters.”

Well enough to send the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

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