This season, the Rams went all in. They poured in resources with only the present in mind, building what they felt was the best possible version of themselves. They are now one game away from proving their unconventional gamble successful.
It had to be difficult and dramatic because neither team in the NFC championship game knows another way. Los Angeles erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the 49ers, 20-17, to punch its ticket to face the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. For the second season in a row, the star-studded NFC champion will play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The Rams reached this point thanks to their stars. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, whom the Rams traded for last offseason, finally played in meaningful games and provided the lift expected from him throughout the postseason. On Sunday, he completed 31 of 45 passes for 337 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. The Niners managed to generate consistent pressure on Stafford. But when he was kept clean, he had great success, just as he has all postseason:
Matthew Stafford has averaged 9.9 yards per attempt when not pressured during the playoffs.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 31, 2022
Stafford has generated +44.6 passing EPA without pressure this postseason, trailing only Matt Ryan's 2016 postseason (+63.7).#SFvsLAR | #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/gbKeCD0yR7
Stafford’s arm helped propel the Rams back into the game. He connected with Cooper Kupp on an 11-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Later in the frame, Stafford helped set up Matt Gay’s go-ahead field goal when he converted a third-and-3 from San Francisco’s 37 by finding Kupp over the middle for a 25-yard gain.
“Cooper Kupp is amazing,” coach Sean McVay told reporters. “There’s no way we are here without him.”
Kupp, the NFL’s triple-crown winner, made a team-high 11 catches for 142 yards and two scores, converting an incredible six third-downs on his targets. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the former Browns wideout signed in Week 10, had his most productive day as a Ram, making nine receptions for 113 yards. Beckham joyously ran around with arms wide open as the confetti fell inside SoFi Stadium.
The Rams defense didn’t generate any sacks and at times struggled with the Niners passing game over the middle of the field and the physicality of receiver Deebo Samuel in the running game. But in the final moments of the game, when L.A. needed a stop, star defensive lineman Aaron Donald came up with a crucial pressure that forced Jimmy Garoppolo into flinging a game-clinching interception.
The Rams punched their ticket to the Super Bowl despite nearly imploding—something that has already happened once this postseason. After a clean wild-card win over the Cardinals, L.A. almost unraveled against the Bucs in the divisional round before Stafford’s and Kupp’s heroics saved the team in the final seconds. On Sunday, the Rams went down early and didn’t seem capable of withstanding the Niners’ physicality. Midway through the third quarter, Stafford failed to convert a QB sneak on fourth-and-1, and McVay failed in challenging the call. Garoppolo hit George Kittle for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, extending San Francisco’s lead to 10 heading into the fourth quarter.
McVay made some questionable decisions that ultimately went unpunished. Before the fourth quarter started, he exhausted L.A.’s second timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty, perhaps rescuing a drive that resulted in a touchdown to pull within three points. On the ensuing series, McVay lost a challenge when he contended that Kyle Juszczyk fumbled the football on a third-and-2 near midfield, costing the team its final timeout with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game. The decision could have proved costly had the Rams defense needed to conserve clock or if the offense needed to rally late in the game.
But the 49ers made some mistakes of their own. Facing fourth-and-2 late in the fourth quarter, Shanahan elected to take a delay-of-game penalty instead of going for it, which he said after the game he didn’t consider. The decision netted San Francisco 30 yards (not counting the 5-yard delay of game penalty), but L.A. drove down the field and tied the game at 17 on the ensuing drive. That same drive also began with a dropped interception by 49ers defensive back Jaquiski Tartt that could have effectively put the game out of reach.
The Rams had lost six consecutive meetings with the 49ers; there were times on Sunday when a seventh loss looked inevitable. But Los Angeles managed to avoid catastrophe and end the losing streak at the best time possible. And now, McVay and the Rams are set to (kind of) host the Super Bowl. McVay will once again face a former colleague: Zac Taylor, who guided the Bengals from 4-11-1 last season to an AFC North crown and an unlikely AFC title.
“We looked at it just being in this moment, taking care of this game today,” McVay told reporters. “Our guys did a great job. Each game is its own separate entity, and I’m really just happy those guys got it done today.”