Total team effort puts the Rams in the Super Bowl

The football stars are aligning over Southern California. As if by cosmic design the Los Angeles Rams will be participating in their second Super Bowl in the last four years. And it doesn't get any sweeter than beating the archrival San Francisco 49ers, 20-17, in the NFC Championship game at SoFi Stadium last Sunday to get there. The Rams will now face the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, February 13, in the same Rams House in Inglewood for the NFL's crown jewel, the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"It's going to be big. I love the way that we were able to overcome some things, but we know to be able to finish this deal and get a win against an excellent Bengals team in a couple weeks, we got to do a great job playing clean football, being sharp with our communication in both phases, offensively, defensively. But just overall looking to play really clean, tough, physical brand of football, offense, defense and in the kicking game," said Rams head coach Sean McVay after the game last Sunday.

During Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, Georgia three years ago the Rams and the New England Patriots played one of the most underwhelming NFL Championship games. McVay was asked what he learned from that 13-3 loss. "When we went to Atlanta a couple years ago, because you try to get everything done before you have to travel. Well, we don't have to travel. We're able to stay in our facilities, do all those things. And so, being able to manage the next couple weeks, getting our players refreshed, but making sure that they feel as confident and as ready to go when the 13th hits without any monotony setting in."

The win over the 49ers was "a great sign of resilience" according to McVay. Despite dominating the 49ers in the first half, the Rams only scored one touchdown in four possessions. The Rams missed a golden opportunity midway through the first quarter on 3rd-and-goal when quarterback Matthew Stafford threw slightly behind wide receiver Cooper Kupp at the goal line for an interception. But on their very next possession Stafford proceeded to march the Rams 97 yards in 18 plays culminating with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Kupp.

The turning point and momentum changed when the 49ers took a 17-7 lead with 1:59 left in the third quarter. A 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jimmy Garappolo to tight end George Kittle put the Rams on the ropes with half of SoFi Stadium dressed in 49er red sensing victory. The Rams at that point had only scored the one touchdown in five possessions against one of the best defenses in the league.

McVay continued to say, "You go down 17-7, doesn't look good. But the guys just stayed in the moment. One play at a time. Did a great job. Defense to be able to close it out, especially after the last time we played them, the way that went. There were just so many great plays today by great players."

A sense of urgency coincided with Stafford driving the Rams to their second touchdown early in the fourth quarter while Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald gathered his teammates on the sideline for a defense only chat. An animated Donald addressed each of the players with an intensity that drew instant notice from the fans and the network broadcast. The 49ers never scored again.

The key moment came when the defense stopped San Francisco next drive on a 3rd-and-2 running play at the Rams 45-yard line. Stafford responded by driving the Rams 85 yards ending with a 40-yard field goal by Matt Gay to tie the score a 17-17. The Rams defense forced a three-and-out with three incomplete passes on the 49ers next possession, setting up the game-winning drive. Ten plays later Matt Gay kicked a 30-yard field goal for a 20-17 lead with 1:46 remaining in regulation.

Remembering how the 49ers had beaten the Rams in the last game of the season with a late game-tying touchdown drive and field goal in overtime, Aaron Donald and the Rams defense amped up the pressure. Three plays later, Donald physically forced Garappolo into a wild toss that ended in an interception by linebacker Travin Howard. Stafford happily kneeled for the last three plays of the game and a very gutsy team win. Half of the packed house of 73,202 evenly divided partisan fans rejoiced while the red-clad 49ers fans quickly and silently filed out of SoFi Stadium.

For Stafford, it's been a three-game redemption tour and a validation of the Rams trading for him exactly one year ago. He was maligned for not winning in three Playoff games with the Detroit Lions. This postseason, he has completed 72 of 100 passes for 905 total yards and only one interception. He has thrown two touchdown passes in each of three Playoff wins with the Rams. The fact that he's only been sacked five times in the three games bodes well for the Rams offensive front line.

This game wasn't perfect," said Stafford after the win Last Sunday. It wasn't easy in some spots, but we found a way to win the game. That's what it's all about. I'm just happy and proud to be a part of this group. And we got some more work left to do."

When asked about Cooper Kupp, Stafford glowed, "That's the question of the year. He's been unbelievable for us all year. Huge on third down. Huge in big plays. Got blocks. Does everything. Great teammate. We're all lucky to be able to play with him. And just so happy for his success. And his success helps us succeed as well. So, it's great."

Flying under the radar has been the Rams' commitment to stop the run during the Playoffs. In the last two regular season games of the season, the defense gave up 300 total rushing yards, including 135 yards in Week 18 vs the 49ers. In three Playoff games they have only yielded a total of 162 yards total. And as a commitment to a balanced offense, in each of those games they have outrushed the opposition by 79, 22, and 20 yards respectively.

"I thought Raheem (Morris, Defensive Coordinator) and the defensive coaches put together a great game plan," said McVay. "We were really physical at the point of attack. We played with some heavier box counts. I thought Eric Weddle really showed up with his ability to be able to navigate through traffic, make a lot of close quarter tackle. To hold a team like that to 17 points yards is an outstanding accomplishment."

He also pulled no punches when it came to Stafford: "He's elevated everybody around him. He's made me a better coach. He's made his teammates better. But I think it's really been on display these last couple weeks. We talk about competitive greatness all the time. Being your best when your best was required. He embodied competitive greatness today. Love Matthew Stafford."

Stafford showed his versatility when asked about the Super Bowl being staged in SoFi Stadium this season while taking a friendly "L.A. vs Frisco" dig at the 49ers. "It's great that it's here. If we're playing in it, I don't give a hell where we're at. I don't give a (expletive) where it is. I just want to play in the dang thing. But the fact that it's under this roof, it's going to be awesome. Our fans did an unbelievable job tonight making it a tough environment. It's nice to send some of those red jerseys home. That was cool."


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