They danced around the silence. They leaped into the hush.
As Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal sailed through the dead middle of the uprights on a Sunday afternoon at the deafening Superdome, the sudden quiet that descended upon the celebrating winners was quite possibly the most beautiful sound in the history of Los Angeles sports.
Meanwhile, back home, the Southland screamed.
For the first time in 35 years, America’s most celebrated sporting event will feature a Los Angeles team after the Rams defeated the New Orleans Saints 26-23 in overtime Sunday afternoon in the NFC championship game.
In only their third year back in town, the Rams have a chance to join the eternals at Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they will play the New England Patriots.
Yeah, that’s right, it’s the real Super Bowl, this thing Los Angeles has long only watched from bars and patios and poolside parties. Now, we’re like, in it, actually in it, seriously, and if you think your neighbors are excited, listen to the guys who are taking you there, a Rams team that bounced off the field and into one another’s arms in a locker room scene that set a playoff record for prolonged hugs.
“We’re blowing up right now,’’ said Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. “I just want to cry. I just want to cry.’’
The last time a Los Angeles team played in the Super Bowl was the Raiders in 1984, when they defeated the Washington Redskins. The only other Los Angeles team to appear was the Rams in 1980, when they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At some point we’ll have to begin discussing their current Super Bowl opponent, those AFC champion Patriots and their insufferable greatness, their legendary cheating, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and blah, blah, blah.
But let’s put that hurdle on hold for a second to honor the Rams’ effort Sunday in a breathtaking game in which they overcame a 13-0 deficit in an ear-pummeling environment and were ultimately saved by both a bold fake punt and boneheaded officiating.
And, of course, they finally were rescued by Zuerlein, who was only three of 12 from 57 yards or longer in his career, but perfectly nailed the kick on the Rams’ first possession of the overtime to win it.
Did you lose a little bit of your mind watching that ball leave his cleat? The Rams did.
Said tackle Andrew Whitworth: “I said, ‘Oh, my God, it might go in!’ ’’
Said Robey-Coleman: “I dropped down to my knees. I said, ‘Thank you Lord, thank you God, the football gods were with us.’ ’’
The angry Saints fans, some of whom chucked bottles onto the field as they silently trudged away, will agree with that last statement. They will tell you forever that the Rams got lucky. They will ignore the big-pressure greatness of Jared Goff and the power of the Rams’ defense and say the game was lost by a single zebra.
The blown call occurred with 1:49 remaining in regulation with the score tied 20-all. The Saints had moved the ball to the Rams’ 13-yard line, and, with a first down, could have run the clock down to the final seconds and kicked a chip shot field goal to win the game.
But, on third down, Robey-Coleman crushed receiver Tommylee Lewis before the pass from Drew Brees arrived, knocking Lewis over while the ball fell harmlessly to the ground.
It was clearly pass interference. Everyone was in agreement it was pass interference. It was the absolute definition of pass interference.
Sean Payton, the Saints’ coach, said a league official later phoned him and said, “They messed it up.’’ Even Robey-Coleman smilingly admitted it should have been pass interference.
“I felt more than lucky in that moment, I felt blessed,’’ he said. “It probably was interference.’’
Bottom line, if the flag is thrown, the Saints probably win the game. But there was no penalty, so Wil Lutz kicked the go-ahead field goal with 1:45 remaining, and that gave Goff enough time to lead the Rams back downfield to set up Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal to tie the score and send the game into overtime.
Once there, the Rams lost the coin toss, giving the Saints the first possession, but Dante Fowler smacked Brees into lofting a pass that fell into the arms of Rams safety John Johnson around midfield, and five plays later Zuerlein won the game.
“I did not want it — I had to have it,’’ said Johnson, who celebrated after his pick by hopping around the field doing the Saints’ trademark “Choppa Style” dance. “We just had to fight through it.’’
Saints fans will forever believe it never should have come down to that, and they booed the officials with every breath until that final silence, and they will forever blame this game on that call, but, seriously ...
In that sequence of plays, the blown call had nothing to do with a misguided first-down pass that Brees threw into the dirt, foolishly stopping the clock in a play call almost as dumb as the penalty.
“If the coach runs the ball on first down, we’re not even talking about this,’’ said the Rams’ Marcus Peters.
And the officials had nothing to do with the Saints’ defense allowing Goff to lead the Rams 45 yards on the game-tying drive, including completing a 16-yard pass to a wide-open Robert Woods down the middle.
“Many things happen out there,’’ said Rams general manager Les Snead. “This is never a one-play game, never a one-kick game.’’
And, oh yeah, how about the Saints getting caught on that fake punt that changed the momentum of the game?
Two plays into the second quarter, the Rams trailed 13-0 and were on the verge of absorbing an even bigger early deficit. They were backed up on their 30-yard line, facing fourth down, when punter Johnny Hekker took the snap but didn’t punt. He instead passed the ball to a wide-open Sam Shields for 12 yards and a first down. A dozen plays later, the Rams had driven for their first score, a 36-yard field goal by Zuerlein, and the Rams breathed easy.
“I think more than anything is that we needed a little bit of momentum,’’ said coach Sean McVay.
On a night when running back Todd Gurley strangely carried the ball just four times for 10 yards and dropped two passes — “I was sorry as hell today,’’ he said — the momentum was carried by Goff.
He began the game wearing backup Sean Mannion’s helmet because the radio in Goff’s helmet was broken. He ended the game wearing tape over his helmet ear holes so he wouldn’t be affected by the noise.
But he overcame a first-possession interception to coolly lead the Rams on four fourth-quarter scoring drives and establish himself as a legitimate playoff quarterback.
“I definitely went through a ton of emotions,’’ admitted the quiet Goff. “It was an honor to be out there and win that game and do that here, it is unbelievable.’’
Believe it. Shout it. It’s been nearly four decades, so your lungs can take it.
The Rams are going to the Super Bowl.