The Los Angeles Rams can send referee Bill Vinovich and his crew a thank-you card from Atlanta.
A controversial missed call late in regulation isn’t the only reason the Rams are going to Super Bowl LIII. Jared Goff has some huge clutch throws in the fourth quarter and overtime. Dante Fowler Jr.’s pressure on Drew Brees in overtime caused an interception by safety John Johnson. Greg Zuerlein hit some enormous kicks, a 48-yarder to tie it near the end of regulation and a 57-yarder in overtime to win it.
But the missed call late in regulation will stick with New Orleans Saints fans for a long time, after it was the biggest moment in the Rams’ 26-23 overtime win to take the NFC championship. Officials didn’t throw a flag on an obvious third-down pass interference on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, who blasted Tommylee Lewis before the ball got there but wasn’t called, and that was the play of the game.
Instead of a first down that could have bled the clock, the Saints kicked a field goal, and the Rams had time to tie it with 15 seconds left. Robey-Coleman didn’t look for the ball and hit Lewis well before the ball got there; it was amazing nothing was called. A field goal gave the Saints the lead, but a penalty there probably would have given them the win.
Saints coach Sean Payton said he called the league office right after the game about the non-call.
“Just getting off the phone with the league office. They blew the call,” Payton said in his postgame press conference.
Payton was frustrated, which wasn’t surprising.
“I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call,” he said, according to Josh Katzenstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
In overtime, Johnson’s interception set up a clutch 57-yard field goal by Zuerlein, ending a classic NFC title game that will go down in history. For good, and for bad.
Saints went out to a quick lead
In the first quarter it seemed the Saints would run away with it. In many ways, it was the complete opposite of last week’s Eagles-Saints game, in which the Eagles went out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
New Orleans’ offense moved the ball, though had to settle for field goals deep in Rams territory a couple of times. A drop by Todd Gurley set up an interception, but the Saints got only three points out of it. Still, they led 13-0 after the first quarter.
It wasn’t a rout. The Rams battled back. A fake punt pass by Rams punter Johnny Hekker gave Los Angeles some momentum, and led to a field goal. Gurley scored a touchdown late in the first half to cut the lead to 13-10. Much like the regular-season meeting between the Rams and Saints, when the Saints took a 35-14 lead and the Rams battled back to tie it in the fourth quarter, the Saints couldn’t put Los Angeles away despite a great start.
Rams battled back
The Saints offense, which hasn’t been great for most of the last stretch of the season, didn’t do much after the first quarter. Taysom Hill, the backup quarterback who ends up in a lot of gadget plays to the chagrin of many people who argue that he shouldn’t take snaps away from Brees, caught a short touchdown in the third quarter. But there weren’t many sustained drives, until the Saints absolutely needed one with less than five minutes left in regulation.
The teams went back and forth in the final minutes. Rams coach Sean McVay decided to kick a field goal from the Saints’ 1-yard line with about five minutes left, tying the game. Brees drove the Saints downfield for a go-ahead field goal with 1:41 left, a drive that included the missed pass interference call that will be talked about for a long time. Given that gift, the Rams had enough time to tie the game and Goff came through. He drove the Rams into field-goal range on a few huge throws, including one to Robert Woods for 16 yards on third-and-3 to get the Rams in field-goal range, and Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal tied it with 15 seconds left. Then in overtime, the defense and special teams made enormous plays to end it.
Goff came up huge. So did Zuerlein. As did Fowler and Johnson. The Rams made the plays to win. The officials didn’t cover themselves in glory, and Saints fans will remember that part, too.
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