In the first of two thrilling, overtime championship games restoring the general public’s hope in the National Football League after several seasons dotted with scandal, the Los Angeles Rams edged out the New Orleans Saints in a 26-23 victory to claim the NFC.
At the onset of the game, it seemed as though the Saints would be marching their way back to this year’s Super Bowl. However, a tired-looking Drew Brees could not overcome the motivated Rams’ offense led by young quarterback Jared Goff or an unforgiving Rams’ defense. A questionable call proving a victory was not meant to be also cost the Saints a possible touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The consistency of the Rams’ determination and brilliant play calls sealed the victory for Los Angeles in the first few minutes of overtime.
First quarter highlights showcased why both teams landed in the championship game. Early on, both teams also displayed some chinks in their armor. The Saints (14-3) pulled together under the seasoned leadership of Brees and a tough offensive line. After recovering from a few incomplete passes, the squad put together a beautiful series of running options and first down passes. Following a dropped pass in the endzone by tight end Dan Arnold, the Saints were first on the board with a no-nonsense field goal by Wil Lutz.
The Rams’ (15-3) attempt to respond led to an interception by a motivated Saints’ defense. Another quick drive down the field led to an easy field goal to put the Saints up 6-0. The Rams responded with a series of tough slant options while poking holes in a resilient Saints’ defense. After a brief adjustment by the defensive coordinator to help New Orleans gain back the ball, Brees led a charge down the field. He delivered a perfect touchdown pass into the arms of the young standout Garrett Griffen to put the Saints up 13-0.
Just after the touchdown, a trick play delivered by the hands of the Rams’ kicker, Johnny Hekker, sent a stunning first down pass to its target on a slant play. Los Angeles showed signs of life. Goff proceeded to march straight down the field in driven fashion, and the Rams were on the board with an easy field goal.
Despite avoiding many hits in the answering drive down the field, Brees seemed sluggish toward the end of the second quarter. The defense of the Rams hammered open receivers to prevent any more scoring by the Saints and showcase why they had made it to the NFC Championship. With seconds to go in the first half, Goff delivered a perfect pass to Brandon Cooks to set up first and goal. Todd Gurley did not disappoint at running back and spun into the end zone for an easy touchdown to silence the New Orleans crowd. At the half, the score was 13-10, New Orleans.
Coming out of the locker room, the Saints looked tentative. They did not have the drive of a team who wanted a Super Bowl ring. Brees seemed unsure of what the Rams’ defense would do, but he was saved by masterful play calls from the offensive coordinator. As a result, the Saints’ offense rolled into the endzone once again. They were ahead by a touchdown in the middle of the third quarter.
Led by wide receiver Brandon Cooks, the Rams offense responded with the same drive that landed them the respect of fans nationwide throughout the regular season. Creative offensive play calling placed them inches from the end zone, and a quick pass to tight end Tyler Higbee put them back in the game.
The next series of possessions were dominated by solid defense on both ends of the field. With blood in their eyes, Goff and tight end Gerald Everett completed a long pass play to put the Rams within scoring distance. The Saints’ stood strong with solid goal-line defense, and the Rams tied the game at 20 with a field goal.
As he has done for most of his career, Brees led the Saints down the field with minutes to go in the drive afterward. With charisma, he floated a beautiful pass into the red zone that placed his offense in position to score at the two-minute warning. Another brilliant defensive stand by the Rams forced a successful field goal. The Saints enjoyed a 23-20 lead with little time to spare.
The Rams charged down the field with fury. Showing why they were the team to beat, they displayed determination and a series of polished shotgun play options. A field goal was inevitable. With about 15 seconds to spare, Greg Zuerlien tied the game in one swift kick to send it to overtime.
The Rams solid defensive line finally caught up to Brees in overtime, and a desperate attempt on a second down and sixteen turned the game in the Rams’ favor when Jon Johnson intercepted the pass. The Rams looked confident as they marched down the field to, yet again, put the game in the hands of Zuerlien. Without a moment’s hesitation, the veteran clinched the victory with a monster 57-yard field goal to seal a 26-23 victory for the Rams.
Despite the loss, the Saints’ team stayed focused and strong under the positive leadership of their quarterback. When questioned by reporters afterward, he responded in a way that dispelled the shaky plays on the field and indicated he was already thinking ahead.
“I plan on being here next year and making another run at it,” Brees said, squelching rumors of retirement. “Last year really brought us together as a team and strengthened us. I hope this will too.”
His counterpart, focused on the victory of the moment, relished in being the youngest quarterback to win an NFC title.
“It’s unbelievable, man! I can’t put it into words!” Wearing humility on his sleeve, Goff continued, “The defense played the way they did to force it to overtime. The defense gets a pick, and Greg makes a 57-yarder to win it. That was good from about 70. Unbelievable!” A motivated Rams team will meet the New England Patriots, who boast five Super Bowl rings, on February 3rd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The much-anticipated game promises to be an exciting conclusion to this year’s NFL season.