After Matthew Stafford’s wife leaped into his arms, he took a moment to soak it all in — this victory, this confetti-strewn field, this remarkable year of his life.
One year after the quarterback joined the star-studded Los Angeles Rams to try for a ring, their chances were rapidly diminishing as they went into the fourth quarter in the NFC championship match down by double digits against the formidable San Francisco 49ers.
But with three gritty scoring drives followed by a cathartic defensive stand, the Rams secured the right to stay home for the Super Bowl — and Stafford shone the brightest in this impressive constellation.
Travin Howard’s game-sealing intercept came with 1:09 remaining. The Rams rallied in the fourth quarter to win a spot at the Super Bowl next month at their home stadium with a thrilling 20-17 win Sunday night.
“You can’t write the story any better,”Stafford said. “I’m at a loss for words. I’m just having a blast playing ball with these guys and, shoot, we’ve got one more at the home stadium. Let’s get it done.”
Los Angeles will welcome the Cincinnati Bengals in two weeks for Super Bowl 56 in Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s multibillion-dollar SoFi Stadium.
Stafford passed for 337 yards, and Cooper Kupp was hit with two touchdown passes. The Rams (15-5) started the fourth quarter down 17-7. But after Kupp’s second TD catch and a tying field goal on a drive extended by Jaquiski Tartt’s brutal dropped interception, the Rams drove for Matt Gay’s go-ahead, 30-yard field goal with 1:46 to play.
Los Angeles’ defense then won it When Aaron Donald took hold of Jimmy Garoppolo and forced him to fling a pass toward JaMycal Hasty. The ball caromed high in the air off Hasty’s hands and came straight down to Howard — and it was secured by the fourth-year pro who only recently got a prominent role on LA’s defense.
“I’ve got total trust and confidence in that defense, man,”Stafford, a 13-year veteran who has never won a playoff match before this month, said. “They’ve been unbelievable all year. Way to freakin’ ice the game. I loved it.”
Kupp finished with 11 catches for 142 yards in his latest spectacular game, while Odell Beckham Jr. punched his ticket to his first Super Bowl with yet another strong performance by Los Angeles’ midseason acquisition, making nine catches for 113 yards.
“The story could not be written any better for us to play them in the NFC championship and then shut the door,”Beckham spoke highly of the 49ers.
The Rams won their second conference title in the past four years under coach Sean McVay and moved one step from the franchise’s second championship in the Super Bowl era.
Even more impressive, Los Angeles ended a six-game losing streak to San Francisco’s archrivals. Inglewood won overtime three weeks ago, ensuring their playoff berth.
“I think we knew what a great team this was, but our guys genuinely knew that what happened in the previous six games had nothing to do with what was going to happen when we kicked this one off,”McVay stated.
The Rams have only won twice when trailing by double digits in the second half during McVay’s half-decade in charge — and both victories were in conference championship games.
Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and George Garoppolo caught touchdown passes from Garoppolo. He passed for 232 yards, a heartbreaker for the 49ers (12-8). While San Francisco’s defense faltered late, coach Kyle Shanahan also punted twice from the Rams’ half of the field and a third time from the 50, and that caution likely ended up costing the Niners.
“I thought we had them on the ropes, but we gave them a chance,” Shanahan said. “When you give those guys too many chances, eventually they are going to make them.”
San Francisco will also be lamenting its late-game execution. But Tartt’s dropped interception was the biggest mistake. This could have placed the Rams in serious trouble moments after McVay lost his last timeout for a failed challenge in the fourth quarter.
“I felt confident the entire game,”Kittle said. “Felt we were calm. They just made real good play. The Rams have superstars all over the field.”
Those stars started slowly: Stafford threw a tipped end-zone interception on the Rams’ second drive, and the Niners answered a subsequent 97-yard LA scoring drive with yet Another moment of brilliance from Samuel. Samuel.
The Rams appeared to be in real trouble when San Francisco’s defense stopped them on downs near midfield in the third quarter and Garoppolo hit Kittle with his second TD pass moments later. But Los Angeles kept it close with a gritty drive ending in Kupp’s 11-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter.
BOWLING AT HOME
After 52 consecutive Super Bowls with no NFL team playing at its home stadium, this year’s Rams became the second team to accomplish the feat. Tampa Bay broke that streak last year.
FUN WITH FLAGS
McVay challenged two calls in second half but failed to overturn a fourth spot for his offense. The decisions — and another wasted timeout before a first-down play — left Los Angeles with no timeouts and 10:01 to play.
49ers: LB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles hurt his knee in the first half and didn’t return. … LB Dre Greenlaw injured his calf in the first half. … DE Arden Key was evaluated for a head injury at halftime.
Rams; TE Tyler Higbee injured his knee in the first half and didn’t return. … RB Cam Akers (shoulder) and WR Van Jefferson (knee) missed time in the first half, but returned.
49ers: It’s over. San Francisco won the NFC championship five times in the past eleven years, but not a single ring.
Rams: This matchup with Joe Burrow, the Bengals and the amazing Bengals took place on February 13, 2013. The Super Bowl featured two starting quarterbacks who were both No. The No. 1 picks. The other was six years ago, when Peyton Manning met Cam Newton.