Rams play in winner take all championship against 49ers

The Los Angeles Rams couldn't have planned it any better for the 2021 NFL Playoffs. The NFC West Division champions will host archrival San Francisco 49ers this Sunday in Inglewood. For the first time the Rams will host the NFC Championship game as a Los Angeles franchise and it's only the second time the teams have faced each other in the Playoffs. The game essentially serves as a high-stakes dress rehearsal for Super Bowl LVI, on Sunday, February 13.

The matchup was unlikely at the start of December when the 7-4 Rams were on a three-game slide with very little chance of winning the Division title. The 6-5 Niners were riding a three-game winning streak but were still out of the playoff picture at that point in the season. The lynch pin occurred three weeks ago when the Niners beat the Rams, 27-24, in overtime to just squeeze into the playoffs as the 7th seed. The rest is history as the 49ers eliminated the top two seeds in the NFC, the only scenario that gave the Rams a clear to path to hosting the NFC title game.

"They do a great job. They have excellent personnel. They're really well-coached. You can see they can do an excellent job of applying pressure with a four-man rush. There's a real buy-in and a commitment to a philosophy. The way that they play with their front four, I think Kris Kocurek (49ers Defensive Line Coach) does an outstanding job with those guys," said Rams head coach Sean McVay during his weekly press conference.

"And then they've got great personnel. They've got great speed on the second level... and then they're excellent on the back end. All 11 tackle on this defense. I think Jimmie Ward's (DB) a phenomenal player. Obviously, Bosa (DL Nick) and Armstead (DL Arik) have been outstanding. I've been really impressed with what Samon's (DL Ebukam) done, Jones (DL D.J.) on the interior. So, they've got great players. They've got a great scheme. They're really sound and they play with a relentless, fanatical effort every single snap."

Despite the doubtful press the Rams have received in the past two months, they have posted seven wins and only the one loss to San Francisco in that time period. Much of the concern was that Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford had never won a playoff game, going 0-3 in his 12 years with the Detroit Lions. Well, Stafford has dispelled those inane thoughts with his performances in the Rams' playoff wins the past two games. He confirmed everything General Manager Les Snead and McVay were expecting when they traded for him 10 months ago.

Following the nerve-wracking, 30-27, survival win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that propelled the Rams into the NFC title game, McVay spoke about Stafford's assets. "He's got a great balance... you got to be able to strike that balance of being even keeled, but having the appropriate, authentic emotion when it's necessary. And he's got a great feel for that. And it's always authentic. He's poised during games, but he's got a lot of stuff to him that I think people wouldn't realize. And that's exactly what you want from your quarterback. I love that fire that he has."

Stafford broke several Rams quarterback records in his first year with the team. He beat Kurt Warner's single season record in passing yardage with 4,886 yards and tied him for touchdowns with 41. He set the standard for completions with 404 and passing attempts with 601. His 102.9 season quarterback rating is second only to Warner's 109.2 set in 1999. Stafford's 67.2 completion percentage is third only to Warner's marks of 68.7 established in 2001, and 67.7 in 2000.

The Rams are a 3.5-point favorite against the Niners on Sunday. However, McVay and the Rams haven't beaten the 49ers and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan, losing all six straight games in the past three seasons. Three weeks ago, the Rams had the Niners on the ropes with a 17-0 lead and possession of the ball late in the second quarter with a chance to knock them out of the game and the playoffs. But they allowed 49er quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to drive the team with only 38 seconds remaining to kick a field goal.

A 16-yard touchdown run by wide receiver/running back/kick returner Deebo Samuel to lead off the second half suddenly made the score 17-10. Leading 24-17 with 1:27 left in regulation, the Rams allowed the 49ers to drive 88 yards and complete a 1-yard touchdown pass to George Kittle to tie the game. Niners kicker Robbie Gould kicked a 24-yard field goal in overtime to win the game and put them on a path to Sunday's showdown. In what has to be a concern for Rams fans, the team almost repeated the same transgression this past Sunday in Tampa Bay.

Led with great defensive pressure on Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady combined with an efficient Rams offense in the first quarter, the Rams were dominating Tampa Bay, 20-3, and on the verge of delivering the knockout blow. Instead, the Rams started fumbling their way into what would have been the worst choke job in Los Angeles sports history. Running back Cam Akers fumbled the ball away at the Bucs' 1-yard line with 19 seconds remaining in the first half.

Late in the third quarter, Rams wide receiver and NFL Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp fumbled, setting the Buccaneers up for a touchdown to cut the lead to 24-13 with seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Rams appeared to have wrapped the game up when defensive edge rusher Von Miller sacked Brady, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Miller at Tampa's 25-yard line. However, center Brian Allen hiked the ball completely over Stafford on the next play from scrimmage, allowing Tampa to recover the ball at the Rams 45-yard line.

Brady rallied the Bucs with a 55-yard touchdown to wide receiver Mike Evans, uncharacteristically burning Rams All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey on the score. With 2:25 remaining in the fourth quarter and clinging to a 27-20 lead, Cam Akers committed his second costly fumble at the Rams 30-yard line. With the momentum and likely the game now completely with Tampa Bay, Leonard Fournette tied the game at 27-27 with a 9-yard touchdown run. Fortunately for the Rams, there was 42 seconds remaining for Matthew Stafford to deliver.

McVay had this to say about the final 42 seconds of the game. "On the first play, he thought he was going to be Mike Vick for a second and then he realized, 'Let's go ahead and move and manipulate the pocket and find Cooper on the second down.' And then, what an amazing play that those guys made and he made to be able to get us into field goal range and get it clocked."

With great poise and extraordinary chemistry with Kupp, Stafford hit the receiver with a 20-yard pass to the Rams 44-yard line and 27 seconds remaining. Next came a perfect 44-yard bomb to Kupp to set up a field goal attempt with four seconds remaining in game after Stafford spiked the ball. Matt Gay then put the Rams into the NFC Championship game with a 30-yard field goal as time expired.

Gay had a golden opportunity to help nail the door shut at 6:31 of the fourth quarter, but his 47-yard field goal attempt was on target but fell yards short." You saw that represented and illustrated in a big way with the way that he came back. He hit it good too. It was kind of just one of those weird things where the accuracy was on point and it just fell a little bit short," said McVay.

"So, I think he knew, it was very easy to be able to kind of just adjust, or tweak if you will, the things that he wanted to be able to have it true for the next opt that he got" said McVay. I'm really grateful that he did. He did a great job of being able to have the last two times we go back to Raymond James Stadium. He ends up delivering in a big way."


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